Blink and you’ll miss it: Liberman’s defense strategy

Blink and you’ll miss it: Liberman’s defense strategy

‘No more wars of attrition,’ incoming minister tells IDF top brass in a possible reference to the Gaza morass

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's military correspondent.

Newly appointed Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman alongside IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot during a ceremony welcoming him to the Defense Ministry, May 31, 2016. (Ariel Harmoni/Ministry of Defense)
Newly appointed Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman alongside IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot during a ceremony welcoming him to the Defense Ministry, May 31, 2016. (Ariel Harmoni/Ministry of Defense)

Buried deep in Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman’s opening speech to the army’s top brass on Tuesday, one sentence may shed some light on what Israel’s security strategy may be like during his tenure.

“We don’t have the luxury of conducting drawn-out wars of attrition,” Liberman told the Israel Defense Forces’ General Staff on Tuesday.

One of the criticisms levied against the newly installed defense minister is his unpredictability, his propensity for jumping from position to position, with apparently little concern for consistency.

That statement — benign as it may seem — may offer a glimpse into the Liberman defense doctrine.

Israel has arguably been involved in a war of attrition against Hamas for years, with each side slowly grinding away at the other.

With strict border control and occasional large-scale operations, Israel works to deplete Hamas’s supply of weapons and fighters. Meanwhile Hamas, with rockets and “terror tunnels,” hopes to diminish Israeli resolve.

But in the decade since Hamas took over the coastal enclave in a violent coup, neither side has tried to throw a knockout punch.

In the IDF’s last foray into the Gaza Strip, in a 2014 operation known in Israel as Protective Edge, the goal was not to destroy Hamas, but to deliver a “meaningful blow” to the terror organization and its tunnel network, according to the army’s own account.

A bop on the nose was also Israel’s objective two years prior in the so-called Operation Pillar of Defense and four years before that in the 2008-2009 Operation Cast Lead.

Liberman, who called for a complete takeover of the Strip during the 2014 conflict and has also encouraged a “disproportionate” response to acts of aggression by Hezbollah in the north, may aim to do away with this slow-burning style of warfare, in favor of dramatic, drastic action.

The defense minister’s 11-word sentence is hardly a hashed-out battle plan for Gaza. It details neither how Israel would wage such a non-attrition war nor what Israel would do with the impoverished Strip if the decade-long war of attrition ended — both crucial questions.

It does, however, give IDF generals some indication of what to expect from their new boss, whose comments and recommendations on military issues have seldom been taken seriously.

For instance, will Liberman as defense minister actually make good on his December promise to kill Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh if he does not return the bodies of two IDF soldiers being held in Gaza within 48 hours?

(One cheeky Israeli academic created a website to track this development:

Other than his anti-attrition comment, Liberman’s speech provided precious little information about what his Defense Ministry will look like. The rest of it was a rambling, hard-to-follow commentary on the need for the IDF to not only defend Israel, but to use its position to inspire the population.

To the defense minister, civilians in Israel are just as important to national defense as soldiers: “Therefore I see the first mission of the Israel Defense Forces as maintaining national fortitude.”

But what exactly that “national fortitude” means is less clear.

“It’s three-dimensional,” he said, indicating there’s depth to it.

One dimension of his “national fortitude” is the understanding that Israel can only fight wars when there’s no choice.

The second aspect was his belief that “the unity of the people” is more important than “territorial integrity.” It was a reference to his rediscovered willingness to cede territory for peace, which isn’t promoting much unity so far, at least not in the coalition.

The final “dimension” was the need for equal access to opportunity. Liberman cited poor test scores in the relatively poor city of Kiryat Malachi, compared to the scores in the wealthier Raanana. He also cited himself as a success story for immigrants (he moved to Israel from Moldova in 1978) and said that Israel was “more America than America,” as a “land of opportunity.”

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