Is the chief of staff qualified to understand Sinwar?

In the wake of another military intelligence failure to grasp the strategic landscape, Israel should stop assuming army brass are experts in foreign affairs

IDF Chief of Staff Herzi Halevi recently reiterated his assertion that only increased military pressure will facilitate the release of the hostages, saying, “We will exert as much pressure as needed.” This statement, whose efficacy remains unproven, prompts a seldom-heard question: What credentials establish the chief of staff and other military personnel as professional authorities in comprehending the political conduct of major players in the regional and international arena? Does military experience give soldiers an edge in deciphering the behavior of nations and their leaders?

It is more probable that the opposite is true: the military environment makes it difficult for those in uniform to decipher political behavior. The army operates as a hierarchy, where the military “truth” is not the result of open discourse among equals. Subordinates are required to accept the commander’s rendition of the “truth.”

Prof. Yehoshafat Harkabi, who served as Israel’s head of Military Intelligence in the 1950s, outlined the distinction between political and military thought: “Military thinking views the adversary as a set of targets to be attacked, while political thinking regards the adversary as human, subject to persuasion and reconciliation.”

Military dynamics are usually expressed in simple and clear statements, and favor “tidy” explanations. Military analysts tend to assume that the adversary processes the available information and conducts a cost-benefit calculation to prioritize their actions. More complex methods of exposition are often overlooked.

Furthermore, Military Intelligence officers by definition do not dwell in Israel’s political realm and therefore lack a crucial component when formulating intelligence assessments, which necessitate an integrated approach. They refrain from delving into political positions, assessing their strategic implications, and gauging their significance in the broader intelligence context. For example, they have overlooked a thorough analysis of how the composition of the current right-wing government impacts strategic relations with the United States.

Since its inception, Israel’s looming existential threat has propelled the security establishment to assert its dominance and venture into domains where it has no comparative advantage. The military, bolstered by public esteem and ample resources, has a proclivity, like any organization, to expand its reach. Consequently, the IDF encroached upon areas that should rightfully fall under civilian jurisdiction.

Over the years, ambitious senior IDF officers have been drawn to policymaking, diplomacy, and advocacy roles. Despite the findings of the Agranat Commission on the intelligence failures leading up to the Yom Kippur War, and subsequent recommendations by the Amnon Shahak Commission to reinforce the role of the National Security Council in the state’s intelligence architecture, the primacy of IDF Military Intelligence and its role in preparing the National Intelligence Estimate remains unchallenged.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which is intended to be the nerve center of strategic thinking on foreign policy matters, has been marginalized and nearly excluded from the decision-making process. Seasoned ministry experts, with both theoretical knowledge and practical experience in international politics, have been repeatedly sidelined in favor of young army officers.

While these officers often possess impressive professional skills, they lack the experience of working alongside political decision-makers in Israel and abroad. Security personnel have the ultimate authority in determining the objectives of political intelligence collection, as well as the methods of its analysis and evaluation. Valuable political material often fails to reach a significant number of its natural civilian recipients, including Israel’s senior ambassadors.

Responsibility for the distorted reality where soldiers become political analysts lies primarily with the Israeli government. The tendency of political leadership to act ambiguously and avoid responsibility creates a vacuum that soldiers in uniform often fill.

For years, prime ministers have relied on the military establishment, which confers legitimacy to their decisions, largely as a result of the IDF’s prestige among the public. Thus, relevant or not, government policy decisions are often prefaced: “Based on the recommendation of the security forces and the IDF, it was decided that…”

The intelligence failures behind both the October 7 disaster and the ongoing difficulty in achieving the war’s full objectives are not confined to tactical intelligence but also encompass strategic-political intelligence. These failures should reignite the discussion on who should be tasked with political intelligence and with the formulation of the National Intelligence Estimate.

Shimon Peres incensed military intelligence personnel by questioning their capacity to internalize complex political matters. He contended that their approach was unnuanced and failed to account for a leader’s power to effect historical shifts and defy conservative predictions.

Peres used to joke: “One Arab bluffs another Arab. One Israeli soldier overhears the conversation, and another soldier crafts a National Intelligence Estimate.” Today, in the wake of yet another significant military intelligence failure to fully understand the strategic landscape, Peres’ criticism is difficult to ignore. Though his remarks may have been caustic and provocative, they must be considered in the necessary reevaluation of the competency of the military echelon in analyzing and assessing international affairs.

The IDF’s first duty is to achieve victory in war. Analyzing international affairs and the formulation of the National Intelligence Estimate should be assigned to civilians.

Published by TOI