A Conversation with Amir Oren
Member, Editorial Board of Haaretz in Tel Aviv
06/28/2011 – Amir Oren is a senior correspondent and columnist for Haaretz and a member of the newspaper’s editorial board. He writes about defense and military affairs, the government and international relations.
Robbin Laird and Franck Znaty of Second Line of Defense began a conversation with Oren in November about strategic developments in the region. This interview is a continuation of that conversation. Oren is one of the most respected Israeli analysts and journalists on the Middle East.
SLD: How would you characterize what’s happened in the Middle East?
Oren: Israel’s chief problem is internal. You know the old problem of who’s a Jew? This is a theological, but also a practical problem. There is, however, a much more pressing question. What’s Israel? Up to now, for the last 44 years, Israel has failed to define itself to itself. And besides, what is the core territory it is fighting for? What are the ends and therefore, what should be the means? And right after the 1967 war, it seemed so simple. Israel has taken over territories which the world was sure to make it return to the Arab owners.
SLD: Prior to ’67?
Oren: Yes, the lands beyond the armistice lines of 1949, which by 1967 had become the June 4th, 1967 lines. But this would be in return for peace agreements and security measures, which were to reflect the fact that Israel has been from day one been challenged by all of its neighbors for its existence. The Palestinians were forced to live in all of the neighboring countries, mostly with refugee status because the Arab countries wouldn’t settle them and what happened? Much to Israel’s surprise, as 1967 wore on was the pressure did not come about.
In 1949, Israel has raided Northern Sinai, reached El-Arish, was pushed back by the U.S. for fear of having a confrontation with Great Britain, which was in essence ruling Egypt. In 1956, of course, Eisenhower forced Israel to go back from the Sinai and the Gaza Strip.
Israelis believed in 1967 that it was going to have that experience the third time running. Lo and behold, it didn’t materialize because there was no Arab party, and as long as there was no Arab party for peace, there was no American, and therefore world, pressure for Israel to withdraw back to the 1967 lines.
Thus began the confusion present for most Israeli. What is Israel? Is it Israel within the so-called Green (armistice) Line of 1949-67? Is it Israel’s plus the occupied territories?
And this is, first of all, an internal debate, which Israel should resolve.
And Israel has missed several opportunities for settling with Jordan. Had Israel been willing to give King Hussein 40, 35 years ago what it is now being forced to give the Palestinians, it would have been better off ever since even though, as a footnote one should say, that perhaps by now with the Arab spring which we will talk about a bit later, there would also have been a revolution in Jordan with the Palestinians taking over.
It wasn’t an ironclad insurance policy, but Palestinian nationalism wouldn’t have taken root to the extent it did from 1974 on.
But this is water under the bridge or in the Jordan River, and we are at a situation where Israel in its almost 45th year of occupying the territories, and has to contend with new realities.
SLD: So the point is the ’67 situation has been set in concrete, which creates dilemmas for Israel as well as for the Arab states. And now this situation is occurring in an evolving and strategic different context with upheaval in the Arab world.
Oren: The occupied territories could and should have served as buffer zones between Israel proper and the neighboring Arab countries, which kept challenging its existence.
The Arab countries downgraded their expectations from destroying Israel, taking over all of Israel to taking back the territories occupied in 1967. This brought about a significant change in the buildup of their militaries and change in their war plans, which Israel failed to understand prior to the Yom Kippur War.
It kept clinging to the line of scrimmage rather than holding back, letting the Egyptians cross the canal, and then sending mobile forces to hit the invading forces while avoiding casualties itself.
And it fell into a trap, which was both practical as well as psychological, of losing casualties to such as extent – 2,600 Israelis killed, which is a lot in Israeli terms – that Israeli’s self-confidence was shattered. Of course, it was also dependent on U.S. assistance in the 1973 war.
After 1974, the Israeli military braced for a repeat of 1973, which never came.
SLD: Israel was preparing to fight the last war?
Oren: Yes, of course. In 1972-73, up to October, they prepared for 1967. From 1974 on, they prepared for 1973. They knew, of course, that this is the lesson of history, but they couldn’t avoid it, and they couldn’t avoid it, not because they didn’t have good planners, good strategists, good theoreticians, but because the Commission of Inquiry of 1973 – the Commission of Inquiry appointed by the government – managed to find only military men culpable and found pretext to ignore the responsibility and culpability of the government, the prime minister, the defense minister.
The whole context of 1973 of the war was that the ruling party of the time, Labor was having an election campaign in which its main claim to fame was that for three years, ever since the War of Attrition ended in the summer of 1970 and after Black September, it has managed to keep Israel’s borders quiet, in a state of no war/ no peace.
It was like eating our cake and having it too. Now all of a sudden, having issued an emergency preparedness, which would have belied your claim that you have pacified the Arabs. If all of a sudden on the eve of the Yom Kippur War, it would have said, “Hey, Sadat is reinforcing the canal and the Syrians are also doing it.” That would mean that each time there is such a problem, you do have to mobilize and on the eve of Yom Kippur, so your claim to having pacified the Middle East is undercut.
SLD: How did the Israeli military react to this political situation?
Oren: Successive chiefs of the general staff didn’t want to play this game and be the fall guy after the next war, so they said, “We need more tanks. We need more fighter planes. We need more everything. We need fortifications of the Sinai each time we move from one line to the next in a series of disengagement agreements.”
And billions of dollars were being poured into the sand just to cover themselves, and each time there is some war indication, they would recommend full mobilization so the government can decide not to accept their recommendations, but they would have been held responsible.
SLD: Therefore, they have got to recommend it. They’ll say, “We told you.”
Oren: We told you and, of course, it’s your privilege, yes, to overrule us, but we have done our share.
SLD: And the political situation between Israel and Egypt changed dramatically after the war.
Oren: Even after Sadat came to Jerusalem and we had this peace agreement with Egypt, which emanated from Sadat’s decision to change his orientation towards the United States. This was his main decision for economic reasons because he hated the Soviet Union and for many other reasons, and he decided that war with Israel War with Israel was no longer feasible for him.
In fact, Egypt’s peace dividend for Israel was a two-for-the-price-of one. Israel did not change its military buildup accordingly. Strategically, what happened was, peace was achieved with one stroke. With one stroke, Israel took out of commission the two fronts it was facing at the time because without an Egyptian front, there was also no point in an Eastern front. Syria could not wage war against Israel without the Egyptian front.
The Syrians, of course, did not sign a peace agreement with Israel, but in effect, they were left alone facing Israel.
SLD: These conditions changed fundamentally the strategic dynamic in the Middle East.
Oren: The conditions changed fundamentally. Israel lost an opportunity because it went to war in Lebanon, not against Lebanon, but in Lebanon in 1982. At that time, it performed brilliantly from the air. This was the only service, which performed not only well, but also in many ways in an excellent fashion.
IDF tanks on the Lebanese border, June 1982 (Credit Photo: GPO)
There was a problem which emerged around an Air Force plane, an F-4, which killed 35 of our own guys in a Blue-on-Blue incident, and then the systems officer – the navigator- was Yohanan Locker, a young weapon system officer, or navigator, now a Major-General, Prime Minister Netanyahu’s military secretary.
It’s an interesting way of looking at how the Air Force tried to change. The pilot was a lieutenant colonel. This guy, in 1973, along with a fellow pilot, was stationed at a small base where there were no planes and pilots permanently stationed there. Only when the Air Force went on special alert did they deploy, and this guy and the other one did not know on Yom Kippur Day 1973 that war is about to break. It’s very much reminiscent of Pearl Harbor in more than one way. Now all of a sudden, they were alerted by a siren. They had a few hours of sleep because the night before they watched a film, and the film was “Tora! Tora! Tora!”
Oren: And they were amazed at how foolish those Americans were, not expecting a Japanese attack, and here they are undergoing the same experience. So these two fighter pilots took off and killed seven Egyptian MIGs. They were heroes, aces. Now nine years later, one of these guys is again gung-ho, trigger happy, and his navigator tells him, “Listen, I’m not sure this is the right target, that the data we received could be faulty. We have to double check.” But he went ahead and attacked the ground target, which turned out to be an Israeli infantry battalion ”
This was a very traumatic event and has led the Israeli Air Force to work very hard on their ability to support ground operations. Unfortunately, there is a perception that this is now the main Israeli Air Force task.
We are almost 26 years after the very last air-to-air battle between Israel and Arab air forces in November of 1985, two F-15s shooting down two MIGS, I believe 23s, over Damascus. We only had 30 years of jet-to-jet combat. Between 1955 and 1985 there were aerial duels between fighter jets, which means that today you have Israeli fighter pilots in their mid-20s who were born after the last air-to-air battle, and while they of course train for air battles their main mission is air-to-ground.
Now this may change. The region is changing and they may face Arab air forces, this time of course using Western equipment and sometimes similar or even identical systems and this is something, which, of course, worries Israel and especially the Air Force very much regarding quantity as well as quality.
SLD: You are talking about Saudi Arabia, which is supposed to receive more advanced F-15s than Israel has as well as the UAE, which already has more advanced F-16s as well?
Oren: Egypt as well has F-16s. Pakistan has them and perhaps Iraq will have them as well.
SLD: This creates a serious objective problem of whether Israel has air superiority in the region?
Oren: Yes and there are trends in the region, which create concerns as well. During the drawdown from Iraq, the U. S. military is leaving a lot of material. Now Iraq may turn radical again, Iran can take over, at least southern Iraq around Basra. There are huge depots there and of course, Egypt could turn hostile again.
Now this would mean that Israel would have to revert to the old school but with new systems.
SLD: Pre-’67? Is that what you’re saying? (See “Listening to the Israeli Air Chief”)
Oren: Pre-mid-’80s. This obviously rests on air systems, but the Air Force modernization is challenged from two directions.
The first is from the Navy, which wants to expand the ability of Israel to operate from the Sea. They argue that the air force infrastructure is too vulnerable in a missile age.
The second is the normal bias of the General Staff, which is the Army in other terms. The Chief of the IDF will be for new air systems, if he does not have to pay for it with other forces. But when he has to consider it, vis-à-vis, another F-35 or another missile boat, then it’s a conflict of interest for him. And the question, of course, always becomes the marginal plane or the marginal squadron or the marginal battalion.
So the challenge is how many squadrons, how many planes, how many air bases? Are the air bases so vulnerable, so as to need, let’s say the F-35Bs, in order to deploy out of base. How many UAVs? What mix?
What it comes down to is that boys will be boys. The Air Force is still led by fighter pilots, not weapons systems officers, not transport pilots or airlift pilots or, in the Israeli case, helicopter pilots, because we have no army aviation.
Here it is obvious that no matter how we start, it is really irrelevant whether war starts because Hezbollah kidnaps Israeli soldiers because Israel attacks Iran and Iran strikes back. From day two, if not earlier, Israeli population everywhere, including in this very cafe, is going to feel the brunt of the war.
So this means that there will be a lot of popular pressure on the government to get it over with quickly. Now that means that the government and the general staff will put pressure on the Air Force, not to execute its carefully planned operational orders, which means if we take the example of previous wars, not enough to disclose potential future ones.
If you plan a militarily optimal plan to deal with missile attacks you will launch a systematic rather than haphazard campaign. This is not possible when you need to deal with the concerns of the population. The reason is outcry from the public. Why is it taking so long? You will quickly divert the Air Force from its original missions and planned approach.
The way it was approved before when it was only a contingency plan, simulated, annotated, what have you. But in practice, when television shows the shell holes and the shell shock in Tel Aviv, a woman crying as her apartment building is being ruined by salvos of missiles from Iran or from Gaza…
SLD: The operational tempo changes.
Oren: Well, the political tempo changes, which means that the civilian leadership, the political leadership takes charge and order the Air Force to strike quickly.
The political leadership would have to be very resilient. We have to prepare the population here, shelters and air raid sirens, and American assistance via the Air Force and Aegis and political assistance, and in order to give the Air Force the time and space it needs to be able to go about its business, because in 1973, it didn’t do it.
It diverted missions from the Suez Canal to the Golan Heights, lost six planes and crews in one sortie and the Air Force lost its equilibrium, and this is a lesson learned and relearned time and time again. And I’m not sure that the civil-military relationship would be fine-tuned. I think this is more important than the military preparation itself.
SLD: You are talking about the intersection of force structure and political management of military operations, which frankly I think is the core analytical task in preparing for conflict. In the U.S., we focus primarily in political considerations on single platforms or occupation management, but are not so good at understanding the intersection between the tools, which forces provide, and options for political management for challenging operations. Could you give us a sense of your views of the challenge of moving forward in dealing with this intersection of tools or capabilities?
Oren: A key element is for the government to think through in advance its approach to termination of operations or exit plans. Does it “finish” the war even with less than perfect results, or does it work to act quickly because of political pressure.
And it has to do with the narrative, which can be shaped in today’s context.
It has to do with the way the government depicts to itself to the population here and abroad about what is happening and has happened.
For instance, in the second Lebanese war, in late July, there was the Kfar Qana
incident where an aerial attack allegedly – later it turns out that it wasn’t true – but allegedly caused damage in the Lebanese village of Kfar Qana in south Lebanon with many civilians killed and there was an outcry and Condoleezza Rice was here and demanded at least a bombing pause
By that time, Israel has gotten most of what it wanted from the campaign.
It could have used this point to terminate operations and provide some magnanimous way of saying, “Okay, enough is enough.”
Instead, it chose to say, “Hey, don’t dictate to us how and when to exit. We’ll go on.”
And the next couple of weeks were worse than what had happened up to that point.
It is always an equation of achievement versus cost. It’s not cost effectiveness.
The cost is immediate. The achievement is long term.
The judgment isn’t immediate. The popular demands for top officials to resign are immediate. You don’t have the luxury of waiting five years, then looking back and saying, “But we had five years of quiet along the border. In retrospect, it was a victory. It wasn’t even a tie, let alone a defeat.”
You have the time factor on two levels. First of all, the campaign has to be very short and, second, the jury is out for only minutes. The jury is not deliberating. It’s text messaging.
SLD: Would you characterize what Israel has been focusing on militarily over the past five years as largely COIN or counter insurgency?
Oren: In Israeli terms, what happened in Lebanon five years ago was not counter insurgency warfare. It was low-intensity conflict.
The six years between 2000 and 2006 were spent on counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism operations in the West Bank of Gaza. And that, because of the scarcity of manpower resources, both conscripts and reserves, this degraded the ability of the same units, because you don’t have another military to prepare or refresh their preparedness for the other sort of operations. So that by the time they were deployed in Lebanon…
SLD: They lost their combat skills?
Oren: They lost their skills and it took them two, three, five precious days to regain them, by which time casualties were such that the critics of the campaign were clamoring for some answers, and the government felt pressure to justify the campaign.
SLD: How do you see the change going forward?
Oren: This is, of course, a very frustrating business because the Israeli military has spent the last five years or so regaining skills for low-intensity conflict as well as counter-insurgency.
Now the Arabs who are, of course, preparing for missile and rocket attacks too, as they did at least since 1991 when Saddam showed them that it was feasible, they are also attempting some nonviolent demonstrations and Israel again faces a dilemma because it can’t prepare the police force, riot police, non-lethal measures, but this will take away from the infantry which it needs for the other operations. The pool here is limited.
We don’t have the ability that the U.S. always had also because of its political culture to have only a skeletal military between wars absorb the first strike, and then have two, three, four years to build from an industrial base and from a manpower pool of millions to build an army, whether it’s for attrition or for strategic strike so it all has to be done simultaneously.
SLD: And going forward you have to consider the objective capabilities in the region, not just intentions.
Oren: You said that countries should act regarding deeds, not intentions, or facts on the ground. If you have a build up in the UAE, Israel should not be complacent and think that it will always be neutral. But you do have to work on the intention side of the equation as well. You do have to lower the motives for the other side and that goes back to the political settlement. It’s an entirely different discussion, whether a political agreement with the Palestinians is possible. The chances are remote. That does not mean that Israel shouldn’t go out of its way to show maximum flexibility and to go back to its core interests, which is what I talked about earlier regarding the definition of Israel. When the Israeli Prime Minister Eshkol visited President Johnson at the LBJ Ranch at the turn of the year 1967/68, Johnson asked him, “What kind of Israel do you want?”
It goes back that question.
For a discussion of the Saudi F-15 deal see: https://www.sldinfo.com/?p=12421