The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) is renowned for its war doctrine: a succession of rapid decisive operations based on surprising combined arms offensives. In the Six-Day War and Yom Kippur War, Israeli tanks broke world records in tempo in terms of miles penetrated per day (depth of offensive). Yet the IDF operated in a manner inconsistent with its official doctrine over the course of its last six major campaigns: Operation Accountability (1993), Operation Grapes of Wrath (1996), the Second Lebanon War (2006), Operation Cast Lead (2008-2009), Operation Pillar of Defense (2012), and Operation Protective Edge (2014). I call these six campaigns “accountability-rationale campaigns” (see below table).
I take this name from the original Operation Accountability campaign design in 1993, when Israel intervened in Lebanon to fight Hizballah. These six operations all sought to shape the future behavior of the adversary by striking a blow or causing attrition through firepower and by applying indirect levers, all while curtailing the allocation of resources and minimizing risk. In other words, the routine low intensity exchanges between the parties would become acceptable to one side or the other. Hence, that side decided to escalate to kinetically rewrite the rules of the post-conflict environment, where low intensity exchanges are routine. As Israel faced much weaker sub-state opponents with limited competencies, it implemented strategies that emphasized cost- and risk-management.
If each campaign was viewed as an isolated episode, the IDF’s seemingly aberrant warfighting method could be explained away as cases of individual judgment or a deviation from the doctrine that might require investigation (asoccurred in 2006). Yet the IDF adhered to recurring patterns of operation in the course of six campaigns spread over two and a half decades. As such, these are not aberrations but rather the application of a second war doctrine — overt, but not officially written or institutionalized. The result is recurrent tension and dissonance owing to prevailing expectations within the IDF and in the public arena, based on official documents and the divergence from formal doctrinal documents.
The Main Idea: Blow or Attrition versus Decision
In none of the six accountability-rationale campaigns did the IDF aim to overthrow the opponent and reach a military decision. Rather, it sought to deliver a blow or to attrit the opponent. Concurrently, the IDF applied indirect levers (such as air or naval blockade) to put diplomatic mechanisms in motion that would facilitate a termination of the fighting and allow Israel to achieve its strategic objectives. This includes cases in which the official orders spoke of removing the threat. Even when ostensibly far-reaching objectives were officially defined, such as “expulsion of Hizballah from the area [South Lebanon]” or “deployment of the Lebanese army in all of Southern Lebanon,” the IDF did not actually follow a campaign design that could have achieved these objectives. It is therefore doubtful whether they can be regarded as true objectives.
In these campaigns, ground operations were of limited scope and were designed according to a rationale of small raids, special operations, general pressure (on the outskirts of Gaza City during Operation Cast Lead), or a specific need (such as neutralizing Hamas’s offensive cross-border tunnels in Operation Protective Edge). No ground offensives were conducted according to a broader or more ambitious rationale. No bold, large-scale attack took place.
In practice, the IDF’s “true” main objective was to cause the opponent more damage (quantitatively and qualitatively) than the opponent caused Israel in the same timespan. In this way, the IDF hoped to persuade its adversary that the fighting was of no benefit to it, convince it to accept at least some of Israel’s conditions for a post-conflict arrangement, and establish deterrence that would postpone the next round of fighting. As Thomas Rid explains, Israeli deterrence mostly means impressing upon the opponent the fear of conflict to postpone the next conflict as much as possible, elevate the casus belli threshold, and — if a conflict eventually occurred — limit the ways and means the adversary would use.
In effect, the main idea was to conduct a “parallel” campaign: to permit the weaker opponent to carry out its planned campaign against Israel as the IDF carried out a campaign that would cause the opponent worse damage.
Overall, the accountability-rationale campaigns possessed four stages. First, a strike with firepower against pre-selected targets; second, a delay stage until the decision was taken to commit ground forces to the fighting; third, a (usually limited) ground offensive stage; fourth, a maintaining of pressure until both sides were ripe for a ceasefire.
Why has Israel chosen six times to operate according to such a pattern? The answer may be simply because it could. Accountability-rationale campaigns reflect a preference for resource management and risk management, rather than risk-taking and a potential high price. It is possible that Israel could not have afforded to act according to the blow/attrition-through-firepower mode had it faced a high-competence opponent able to defend its airspace with some degree of success, able to disrupt Israeli intelligence’s targeting process or disrupt the functional continuity of Israeli air force bases, or capable of posing a more significant counter-threat that Israel could not afford to sustain.
In practice, these accountability-rationale campaigns reveal that Israeli decision-makers believed that a modest operational result achieved at a modest cost and risk was preferable to potential for an excellent operational result achieved at high cost and risk. Such preferences are possible when Israel faces a relatively weak sub-state enemy. Moreover, the stakes in the six accountability-rationale campaigns were not very high — they were violent negotiations on the precise boundaries of the freedom of violent action to be exercised by the parties in routine times or an incident that spun out of control. Israeli decision-makers apparently believed, consciously or otherwise, that the ways and means did not have to be of great weight.
Entering and Exiting the Campaign
In general, accountability-rationale campaigns were born out of lack of agreement about each side’s boundaries in the ”routine” low-intensity conflict. One of the sides no longer accepted the boundaries of the violence in routine times, and escalated from low intensity (exchanges of violence that are a permitted part of routine times) to medium-to-high intensity in order to conduct violent negotiations over a redefinition of the boundaries of the permitted freedom of action.
In none of these six campaigns did the end state result directly from the military situation. After sufficient time passed, the two sides reached the conclusion that they had exhausted the measures they were willing to use (not necessarily all the means at their disposal) and that time was no longer working to their advantage — and they then chose to exit from the conflict. In most of the accountability-rationale campaigns, Israel’s opponents agreed to a ceasefire first, and it was Israel that insisted on more time for fighting. The insistence on additional time might have resulted from a dissonance in the Israeli decision-making community, as some waited for military decision to result (such as the a decision that may result from a traditional maneuver campaign), even as the IDF conducted a coercive or attritional campaign. Coherence on Israel’s part could have brought most of the campaigns to an immediate end following the initial air strikes.
Most of these campaigns ended with an international diplomatic arrangement, but the principal characteristic of the termination of most accountability-rationale campaigns is the difference between the formal arrangements ending them and the reality-shaping factors that emerge from them. The six accountability-rationale campaigns rendered clear the cost-benefit ratio in conflicts of this type to all the parties involved. The costs of the conflicts shaped the rules of the game and the boundaries of conduct in the follow-on low-intensity conflict.
A Look Ahead to Future Conflicts
In these six campaigns, it is understandable why Israel has chosen to act by prioritizing cost-benefit patterns— achieving a modest result at a modest cost— and to postpone weightier decisions insofar as possible. In each accountability-rationale campaign, Israel faced weak sub-state enemies whose main capabilities lie in inflicting damage, but who do not threaten to defeat the IDF or to capture Israeli territory. In each campaign, the interests defended by the IDF were of secondary importance. In this context, Israel could afford to sustain damage from the opponent, knowing that the opponent at the same time was suffering more substantial damage, without removing the threat or substantially degrading the opponent’s ability to make war.
Yet applying these preferences beyond such contexts is risky. First, it is questionable whether these patterns of operation are relevant to situations in which Israel faces more capable opponents. Furthermore, if a sub-state enemy such as Hizballah acquires new capabilities that can cause more significant damage to the functioning of Israel’s military, civilian, and economic systems, this will require a reassessment of the feasibility of acting according to accountability-rationale