Israel's chief of staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz, photographed in October, gave a wide-ranging address at the annual Herzliya Conference on March 11. (Jack Guez / AFP)
HERZLIYA, Israel — While the chances of Israel initiating a war in the foreseeable future are “relatively low,” Israel’s top military commander said the chances of “getting dragged” into confrontation is much higher.
Given instability along all of its borders and Israel’s need to operate “day by day and night by night” to ensure “quiet” in the West Bank, any tactical action by Israel in response to myriad threats could turn into a “strategic event,” warned Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz, Israel Defense Forces (IDF) chief of staff.
“That’s the reality we live in,” Gantz told participants Monday at the 13th annual Herzliya Conference here.
In a wide-ranging address, Gantz said strategic shifts affecting regional stability and the changing nature of the threats in all of Israel’s operational theaters require the IDF to be more flexible and responsive than ever before.
“The characteristics of the threats have changed. They’re more lethal, longer-range and extend across a broad spectrum,” he said.
Starting with civil war-wracked Syria, Gantz said the instability beyond the Golan Heights renders it very unlikely that Israel will have to face the five- to seven divisions it had traditionally trained against. However, he warned of the “high likelihood” that that “terror groups” could eventually take over strategic arsenals of Syrian leader Bashar Assad.
“At the moment, terror organizations are fighting Assad. But guess what? We could be their next target,” Gantz said.
As for Lebanon, Israel’s top commander said Hezbollah has acquired “near state-like” capabilities against which Israel is prepared to act with decisive force, if necessary.
“Lebanon cannot claim that it is a sovereign state without holding itself responsible for actions that take place within its territory,” Gantz said.
If Israel is forced to act along its border with Lebanon, Gantz said, “I’d much rather be an Israeli citizen than a Lebanese citizen.”
In Gaza, the IDF chief said Israel’s Pillar of Operation last November aimed to restore quiet and deter rocket attacks on the Israeli homefront.
“Those goals were fully achieved and there is now quiet in the south. But if the quiet doesn’t continue, we are prepared to act even stronger there.”
Across the Jordan River, Gantz said the situation in the Hashemite Kingdom of King Abdullah “is stable, but not to a small extent, sensitive.”
As for Iran, he declined to elaborate on Israeli plans other than to say: “It’s a subject that occupies us day by day, and hour by hour.”
Gantz said the IDF was tweaking its operational concepts and deployment plans to respond rapidly to the panoply of threats while modernizing for the future. While the IDF’s latest five-year plan — dubbed Oz — awaits approval by the new Israeli government, Gantz said proposed investment would focus on improved capabilities for precision attack and ground maneuvering warfare.
“When we have to be decisive and to deliver long-term achievements, we won’t be able to rely only on standoff firepower,” Gantz said. “We’ll have to enter in Gaza and in Lebanon. We’ll need to go into towns and villages where the enemies are. [Future wars] won’t be only video games; it will involve physical maneuvering in tight areas … as we have to be flexible enough to adapt to changing theaters.”
He cited seven specific areas targeted in the IDF’s upcoming multiyear plan:
air-, land- and sea-based attack capabilities
rapid-response, ground maneuvering capabilities, with emphasis on urban theaters
protection of Israel’s exclusive economic zone
improved C4 and logistics.
Gantz said the IDF plans to reduce its professional force by thousands over the next five years as part of long-term efficiency measures.
That said, he warned against precipitous budget cuts that could lead to a hollow force.
“We cannot allow our force to rust. An army that doesn’t train; that isn’t certified; that isn’t equipped with advanced capabilities is like a rusty pipe. It breaks easily. … We must maintain a polished steel pipe that is resilient and strong.”