Why Does the Reconciliation between Israel and Military Intellectuals Matter?

Why Does the Reconciliation between Israel and Military Intellectuals Matter?
Photo by Timon Studler on Unsplash

By Philippe Beaulieu-Brossard

Appointing a new Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) Commissioner rarely stirs up controversy, but in Israel it can easily turn into a media storm. This might not come as a surprise. Israel has an assault rate of 6.35%, one of the five worst among 34 OECD countries. Nowadays, Israel public fears a third intifada (i.e. a general Palestinian uprising) and 70% surveyed distrust Police forces. The Police is responsible for public safety, border patrol, and counter-terrorism in Israel, East Jerusalem and most of the West Bank (i.e. area C). A media storm was, therefore, predictable when the Israeli Government appointed Gal Hirsch, a retired military intellectual, to this position in late August. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Israel military establishment supported Hirsch based on his ‘creativity’ derived from his intellectual background. Yet, three controversies heated up about Hirsch’s command in the Second Lebanon War in 2006, his outsider profile and rank for the job, and corruption allegations. The Government, seeking to calm the storm, replaced Hirsch with Roni Alsheich, an Orthodox Jew supporting settlements in the West Bank last Monday. This move pushed the storm towards another direction over turning the Police into an institution explicitly protecting a minority.

The popularization of these ‘new approaches’ in the military is perhaps the best option available for engaging commanders to think critically and, perhaps, more responsibly.

Nevertheless, the fact that Hirsch’s intellectual background did not cause his replacement tells us something important about Israel in particular, and about international affairs in general. Israel security organizations attempted to ‘purge’ military intellectuals one year before and especially after the Second Lebanon War in 2006. Many blamed the odd terminology Hirsch and his colleagues used to send orders. This created confusion leading to a failure in applying force, and ultimately, to defeat, skeptics claimed. Hirsch had to resign. Nowadays, however, military intellectuals are welcome through the front door to develop ideas, instruct and lead. This reconciliation is taking place in most Israel security organizations: Israel Defense Forces (IDF), Military Intelligence (Aman), Security Agency (Shin bet) and Foreign Intelligence Service (Mossad).

This reconciliation means the application of ‘new approaches’ to better connect ends and means in conflict. The central component of these is a methodology called Systemic Operational Design (SOD) (and its variants). This methodology is built on complex system theories, Soviet operational art, and French theory to name but just a few. SOD emphasizes unlearning assumptions about the enemy to rather map it in several systems (cultural, social, political, economic, logistic…). The debate follows on where to ‘inject energy’ in these systems to reach a desired change. This ‘energy’ can be violence, but also foreign investment or humanitarian aid for instance. While debating, commanders must leave ranks aside and challenge the views of one another as equals. This process leads to a single, and often counter-intuitive, course of action. Hirsch became one of the first officers to put these ‘new approaches’ to trial by fire during the Second Intifada in 2002. In a matter of days, so the story of military intellectuals interviewed goes, the IDF outsmarted and defeated ‘terrorists’ in the West Bank. One example of this was IDF soldiers ‘walking through walls’ to outmaneuver insurgents.

Israel’s reconciliation with military intellectuals makes these ‘new approaches’ more credible internationally. For many security organizations, including Canadian Forces and the US Army, Israel is an operational laboratory. These organizations rely on Israel’s experiences to adapt their own ways of thinking and conducting operations. Canadian Forces adapted some of these ideas in the Operational Planning Process. Some Canadian military instructors and defense scientists hope to institutionalize them further. The US Army, according to American retired commanders and defense scientists, are several years in advance of Canadian Forces in this regard. They adapted these ‘new approaches’ into military exercises, manuals, officer courses in several institutions and aim to translate them into doctrines.

Defence scientists around the world spilled much ink debating whether these ‘new approaches’ were more effective than older ones. They did not debate, however, why the popularization of these matters. These ‘new approaches’ are not neutral tools. They can make the difference between the life and death of combatants and non-combatants, and even the use of violence in the first place.

For Israeli officers supporting these ‘new approaches’, there are no sacred cows anymore. Sacred cows, such as the military occupation of the West Bank or enmity with Hamas, are, more often than not, obstacles to reach a better outcome. They must be ‘unlearned’. Violence is still a mean to ‘inject energy’ to change the status quo. But, it is a mean among many rather than an end in itself. Many military intellectuals came to the conclusion that violence is more often than not counter-productive in most cases. Banning sacred cows also means that ‘conflict resolution’ is possible rather than thinking in terms of ‘conflict management’ as is currently the case in Israel. Indeed, these changes cannot be isolated. They trickle down into politics as well.

Some sacred cows, however, remain sacred even for Israel military intellectuals. They never question the vocation of the military, which is, defending the State and its citizens, as they never question the Zionist project and its effects. They support, at least, a ‘left’ version of it. But most importantly, as much as these ‘new approaches’ partly derive from postmodern thought, they express a modern temptation. This temptation is social engineering in the form of ‘injecting energy’ without letting civilians — on all sides — intervene in the debate. This raises not only ethical questions, but also doubts whether ‘injecting energy’ can be sustainable in the medium and long term from a military perspective.

All in all, the popularization of these ‘new approaches’ in the military is perhaps the best option available for engaging commanders to think critically and, perhaps, more responsibly. Yet, these ‘new approaches’, as the older ones, are not neutral. They have limits and implications that any supporter, inside or outside the military, should bear in mind.

Philippe Beaulieu-Brossard is an SSHRC Postdoctoral Fellow in the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, University of Ottawa.

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