As these lines are being written, the war is ongoing and may yet intensify. It is perhaps too early to posit conclusive lessons at this stage. Therefore, I would qualify all of the findings below by suggesting that they must be put to the test of systematic criticism – alongside many of our military and political realities – once the war was over.
This war was launched by surprise, reminiscent of the Yom Kippur War surprise exactly 50 years and a day earlier. The intelligence services failed in the task of early warning, the first line of defense collapsed, the level of losses in the first stage was horrifying, many were taken prisoner, and it was a while before the IDF recuperated and fought back successfully. The main differences, however, are that in 1973 the IDF faced two large and well equipped armies, whereas now it faces a ragtag force without an air force or armor.
In 2023, most of the dead and abducted are civilians murdered or taken from their homes. In this respect, the attack shook up the foundations of Israel’s defense doctrine. The sheer brutality of the Hamas attackers added to the loss of the sense of security among the public at large, since it turned out that across the fence we allowed the rise of a barbaric organization, more cruel than ISIS or al-Qaeda.
At the same time, it should also be said that the IDF did recover in an impressive manner. The shift to a ground offensive aimed at destroying Hamas was conducted in a very orderly fashion and the army and navy used well the period of waiting, during which time the air force was intensively engaged in the Gaza Strip. Combined arms operations have peeled off Hamas defensive layers and the IDF now operates in the urban core of Gaza City, in preparation for taking over the Hamas command and control centers. The IDF will then need to decide when and how to extend its operations so as to eliminate Hamas also in the southern section of the Gaza Strip, and its mission is far from over. The pace is slow, but it enables the IDF to save the lives of its own soldiers while also facilitating the departure of massive numbers of civilians from the battle zones towards the southern part of the Strip.
Nowhere has Hamas succeeded in pushing back IDF advances. While it has not disintegrated, even two weeks into the ground campaign, Hamas’ ability to launch rockets has been significantly degraded and its control over the civilian population is loosening. The highest echelon of Hamas command has survived thus far. But its mid-level command has been badly mauled, probably reducing the effectiveness of its fighting. Still, Hamas troops remain determined, probably because they believe they have no choice. Israel is determined to eliminate them, and thus they prefer to fight to the end.
Four major lessons appear to emerge for Israel’s defense doctrine and for Israel’s future leadership.
First, Israel will need to deploy larger forces to protect its borders. The size of such forces should be assessed on the basis of the bitter lessons of 7 October. Being permanently ready for the “worst possible scenario” will alter the IDF’s planning assumptions for border defense; the criterion should not be not the enemy’s potential but rather the consequences of a surprise attack.
Second, there is no choice but to increase the defense budget. The IDF will be larger and its budget enhanced. The present situation points to a shortage of formations dealing with more than one front, and this lack of capacity must be addressed by expanding the ground forces order of battle. This would not be a revolution but rather a restoration of what has been neglected.
A good example is the missile defense array, extended all over the country and designed to counter a variety of threats. Once the war is over, Israel can point proudly to the successes of Iron Dome, David’s Sling and Arrow 2 and 3 as well as the patriot. They intercepted most of the threats; systemic debriefing would yield future solutions to the few specific failures. In this respect, the war served as a highly significant testing ground.
Third, it is wrong to argue – as some significant critics have done – that too much money has been spent on technology at the expense of training and high levels of combat readiness. As it turns out, ground operations are demonstrating that technology is vital for the IDF’s success in general and for the specific challenges of urban warfare in particular. Iron Dome, “Trophy” (active armored shield protection) and the variety of unmanned aerial vehicles which accompany troops and provide tactical intelligence and “behind the corner” fire cover – all prove the point. Threats are effectively eliminated that once would have exacted heavy losses from similar forces in such situations. Technology repays its investment not only in defense but also in offense, as tools enabling commanders to concentrate great and accurate firepower to remove obstacles to their advance. Investment in innovation must persist.
Finally, basic assumptions in the political as well as the military and intelligence echelons have failed us; things must change. Over the years the defense establishment and the political leadership let go of the concept of a “preemptive strike,” let alone the notion of launching such a war. Imagine if eighteen or six months ago, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu or his predecessors had decided on a preventive ground offensive against Hamas, because the threat was too large and imminent. Friend and foe alike would have lashed at Israel in every forum. America would have reassessed its support, leaving Israel isolated (even in Congress, Israel’s standing would have been challenged due to this “act of aggression”). Russia would have threatened to shoot down IDF aircraft over Syria. The Gulf Abraham Accords partners would have cut relations. Public opinion in Israel would have turned against the government, accusing it of subordinating national security to political needs.
No longer. The mood of the country has been transformed and so should the support for Israel abroad. Israel’s future leaders must restore to the tool kit of national security the understanding that wars of choice are legitimate. Israel must seriously weigh preventive action to push away the buildup of military capabilities which threaten it – not only in terms of the nuclear threat in all its manifestations, but also the removal of acute conventional threats. The “Begin Doctrine” (of preemptive strikes against nuclear targets first in Iraq in 1981, then in Syria in 2007, and beyond) should be applied also to organizations such as Hizbullah when they attempt to acquire tiebreaker technologies. A small country such as Israel, surrounded by many threats but possessing high technology, must occasionally embark on a preventive war. This was the one measure that could have prevented the catastrophe of October 7. But it would not have been seen as legitimate either at home or abroad. This must change.
With the war still raging, it is thus possible – with a great degree of caution – to point out four missions for the military and political leadership after the war. These four should be carried forward based on broad national consensus:
- legitimizing the option of a war of choice and preventive action;
- expanding investment in innovative technology so as to improve Israel’s qualitative edge;
- enhancing the defense budget and enlarging the IDF;
- and thus, gaining the ability to assign much larger forces to the defense of the borders at all times and to fight simultaneously on more than one front.