Calling in the cavalry to avoid another Lebanon-style foul-up

Calling in the cavalry to avoid another Lebanon-style foul-up

What lies behind Israel’s drafting of its reserves? And what does it mean for the continuation of Operation Pillar of Defense?

Mitch Ginsburg is the former Times of Israel military correspondent.

An Israeli reserves officer prepares to leave his Tel Aviv home on Thursday (Photo credit: Roni Schutzer/ Flash 90)
An Israeli reserves officer prepares to leave his Tel Aviv home on Thursday (Photo credit: Roni Schutzer/ Flash 90)

Alon, a 26-year-old film editor and resident of Tel Aviv – a “pacifist-minded” veteran of the Second Lebanon War – was at his married sister’s house, preparing Friday night dinner, “rubbing a spice mix into the meat,” when he got a call from a friend in his infantry platoon. As soon as he saw the name on the screen, he knew: they were being called up to reserves.

He phoned his father, who took him home to pack a bag: two sets of clean uniforms (he had to rummage around to find them), two pairs of underwear, two pairs of socks, headphones, cell phone and charger, and two books – “Animal Farm” and “Native Son” – both of which are pocket-sized. The latter, he said, “seemed appropriate for a time of war.”

There are several possible reasons for the summons. Perhaps he and his friends – who stayed up till 3 a.m. Friday night preparing their gear – will be suited up, trained and readied for a mass ground assault in Gaza; perhaps they will be ordered to relieve the soldiers on regional duty around the country, allowing them to rotate south to the staging ground; perhaps they have been called up in order to send a message to other regional actors such as Hezbollah and to be ready in the event of a second front.

But the most likely scenario is that he and the other mobilized troops serve two intertwined functions: First, they represent an overt threat, the assembly of Israel’s mass military machine, which could convince Hamas to agree to a long-term ceasefire now, before Gaza is left in rubble and many of its fighters and compatriots are killed. Second, the threat is not empty; they may in fact be needed and if that is the case, in a preemptive war, they need to be prepared, stripped of their civilian mindset, properly outfitted, brought up to date on the relevant intelligence information, run through the drills and then sprung at a time of Israel’s choosing.

In short, the opposite of what happened during the Second Lebanon War – when the reserves were not called for weeks and the country seemed to stumble forward, advancing from village to village for 34 days of war without any clear and attainable goals.

Defense Minister Ehud Barak made clear in an interview three years ago just how flawed he felt the decision-making was during the summer of 2006, when Labor’s Amir Peretz filled the post.

“What should have happened on 12 July, 2006, is one of two things: either hit them with a limited blow and get out of there within two to three days, in accordance with a pre-coordinated agreement with the international community,” Barak said, in discussing the war for a 2009 book, “State of Enigma.” He noted that “one must speak to the relevant figures in the international community ahead of time, so that two to three days later they voice the diplomatic demand to cease the fighting, and we make our amenability plain and stop the action right after we’ve landed the blow.”

Another variant he presented: “Announce that if, within 30 days, Hezbollah does not comply with A,B and C, Israel will act in accordance with its own prerogatives.” During those 30 days, the troops have to be prepared for war.

Asked in the interview what had gone wrong during the Second Lebanon War, Barak said, “The problem is that armies need to be activated. You have to have an understanding of what an army is, what it is you’re activating, and what war is.”

Barak likened the readying of an army to that of a philharmonic orchestra. “You wouldn’t dream of taking a philharmonic orchestra and telling them: ‘You have six hours to practice, tonight at 8.30 in the evening there’s a concert and you’ll be performing Mahler’s Eighth,’” he said. “Even the best orchestra in the world won’t be able to manage Mahler’s Eighth with six hours’ notice. There’s no such thing. First, everyone has to practice their part. Second, everyone has to rehearse together, each group with its instruments. Third, two choirs must be assembled and positioned on stage, and then all of it must be synchronized. After that there’s rehearsal with the deputy conductor followed by a dress rehearsal with the conductor, and only then is the orchestra ready to perform a concert.”

The military, and especially reservists, are not able to practice the central function that they are asked to perform: war. They train occasionally and carry out small operations, but the process of getting ready for war is one that requires time.

For Israel, therefore, the call-up at this juncture makes perfect sense.

The very fact that the cabinet authorized the call-up of 75,000 soldiers is daunting. If that alone does not induce Hamas to sign an acceptable ceasefire, the IDF could launch a limited ground action, further squeezing Hamas and bringing the situation closer to the center of the international stage.

If that, too, fails to produce the desired results, then the reserves units – trained and ready to act – could be sent into Gaza for a larger ground operation, which could shake the foundations of Hamas’s rule and force it to either commit to a ceasefire or suffer the prolonged presence of Israeli troops on its soil.

That, at least, would appear to be Barak’s doctrine.

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