Israel's Wars: A History Since 1947

Is Israel's military all it is claimed to be?

By David Goldberg, February 4, 2010
Ehud Barak lays a wreath to 1973’s fallen IDF soldiers in 1999

Ehud Barak lays a wreath to 1973’s fallen IDF soldiers in 1999

By Ahron Bregman
Routledge £12.99

The problem for Ahron Bregman in updating his book, first published in 1999 and reissued in 2001, is that Israel’s wars are like London buses; nothing for a while, then they come in clusters. He has amplified his chapter on the Al-Aqsa intifada of 2000-05, and included an appraisal of the 2006 Second Lebanon War. But last year’s foray into Gaza, Operation Cast Lead, came too late.

One imagines that his conclusions about it would have been as dispiriting as those he draws from every Israeli war since the Yom Kippur War of 1973. A member of the department of war studies at King’s College, London, Bregman is a lucid analyst with excellent sources, both Israeli and Arab. His marshalling of facts and data is impressive.

Although a former captain in the Israeli army and Knesset assistant, he has an impartial ability to see things from the enemy’s viewpoint. This is particularly so in his sympathetic treatment of Palestinian grievances that led to the intifadas of 1987 and 2000.

Unfortunately, the Israeli army has come to believe in its own propaganda. In fact, its overall record is patchy. The 1947-48 War of Independence was a win. But then, it should have been. Despite its David vs Goliath mythology, there were always more highly motivated Jewish soldiers than the rag-tag Arab forces opposing them — by war’s end, twice as many — and only for the first three weeks were they inferior in weaponry.

The brief 1956 Sinai campaign was a qualified success, revealing serious tactical flaws; the paratroops’ assault on the Mitla Pass was a hairs-breadth from disaster. The 1967 Six-Day War was a spectacular victory which, as Bregman perceptively observes, “ironically removed the cement which had kept the people of Israel together”.

In 1973’s Yom Kippur War, desperate measures snatched a hard-fought draw from the jaws of defeat. The 1982 invasion of Lebanon was a military and strategic fiasco, the 2006 incursion a humiliating failure. According to Bregman: “In responding to Hizbollah’s guerrilla tactics, the IDF proved itself to be as conservative as most other conventional armies…” And, since 1987, the region’s most powerful armed forces have been out-thought and outmanoeuvred by stone-throwing youngsters, terrorists, and small bands operating from within populated areas.

Whether destroying Jenin refugee camp during Operation Defensive Shield in 2003 or razing much of Gaza in January 2009, the IDF has lumbered around, an impotent, enraged Samson.

The fresh revelation in this update is confirmation of the identity of Egypt’s double agent who deceived his Mossad handlers about the timing of the 1973 war. He was Ashraf Marwan, Nasser’s son-in-law, who mysteriously fell to his death from the balcony of his Mayfair flat the day before Bregman was due to meet him in June 2007. A touch of the James Bonds to round off this valuable addition to military literature.

Last updated: 3:16pm, February 18 2011