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Dispelling the Myth of Our Military
Interview of Military Historian Uri Milstein by Shai Gefen

Uri Milstein is a historian and researcher of the wars in Israel. He is considered one of the greatest experts in military research and Israeli wars. Forty years ago, Refael Eitan appointed him as historian of the paratroopers. Since then, Uri Milstein has researched Israel’s wars and military history.

He has written 35 books on military topics. His books and research are considered reliable because he has had access to classified military documents. He lectures under the auspices of the University of Latvia in Israel. He is excommunicated by the Israeli establishment, who sees him as challenging their position.

As a historian and researcher of Israel’s wars for many years, how do you view the fighting going on in Lebanon today?

What’s going on in Lebanon today is a classic example of rebellion. We have been waging war there for some time now, and in such instances, if we are failing and cannot admit to it, the first ones to realize this are the soldiers, those on the scene. They begin to feel that they are fighting for nothing because of decisions being made by people who don’t know what they’re doing. This has been going on for some time now, since the Yom Kippur War, and even more strongly since the Peace in Galilee war. Now, nobody wants to fight anymore.

Why do you mention the Yom Kippur War?

The failure on the part of the military establishment began with the War of Attrition, which took place after the Six Day War. It actually began with the famous “Letter of the Shministim.” At that time, in 1970, a group of crack infantry wrote a letter to Prime Minister Golda Meir, saying that they did not want to sit in a trench because they did not want to be reported as casualties of war. The people who wrote the letter back then are the ones who today head the Israeli media.

For example, today Shmuel Shemtov is the director of Channel 2. That’s when this new behavior began, with protest movements arising after the Yom Kippur War, and continuing with Shalom Achshav demonstrations following the war in Lebanon. Now we have the Four Mothers Organization.

But is it not a fact that there are people who are not prepared to fight for an ideology they disapprove of?

The basis for this phenomenon is the knowledge that the military establishment simply doesn’t work. The problem is even more acute when nobody is ready to admit to this. The political establishment continues assigning it various tasks that end up failing, whether for political reasons or for other ridiculous motives, such as the claim that one nation cannot rule over another, and you may not oppress a nation by imposing a foreign government and the like.

You cannot deny the achievements of the I.D.F. over the years, can you?

The truth is that our army was never an army in the true sense of the term, and it will never operate normally. If we had successes in the past, it was at a time when the Arabs were at a low point, such as during the Six Day War. Although, even then it was an awesome miracle. However, the Arabs have since beefed up their military, while ours has declined. One failure follows another, withdrawal follows withdrawal. We lost our ability to fight a long time ago.

The air force executed some impressive exercises over Lebanon recently. They don’t impress you?

Those weren’t military exercises at all; they were technical maneuvers, and you don’t need an army for that. In theory, you could hire a civilian airline to bomb the enemy.

So how should the army respond in Lebanon?

Right now the I.D.F. can do nothing. We have a military establishment today that doesn’t have an army, which is why it fails at everything it tries to do. The reason is that our army is more of an ideological army than a professional army, which is what it should be.

Today there is public debate about whether we want all of Eretz Yisroel or not. In my opinion, the debate is not focusing on the true issue. Yitzchok Rabin was also raised in the school of thought of Eretz Yisroel Shleima as part of the Achdus Avoda movement. So why did Rabin abandon the idea? Because he came to the conclusion that we don’t have an army that can enforce national imperatives, which is what led to the situation in which he gave away land for peace to our enemies.

Rabin did not agree to the Oslo Accords because of our military might, as he and his followers like to boast, but because they no longer believed in the military prowess of the I.D.F. Rabin said a number of times that he was going to concede, because he had no army. There are many witnesses to this statement.

It began with our actions following the Yom Kippur War. All the “processes,” including the Camp David Accords, resulted from our military failures. If we really wanted peace with Sadat, we could have done that before the Yom Kippur War. Why did we have to sacrifice the lives of 2,500 young men? The Camp David Accords were signed after our failure in the Yom Kippur War.

A current example: The situation in Lebanon, which deteriorated because of Barak’s failure as Chief of Staff. He goes to make “peace” not because of political attainments or principles but because of the failure of the military establishment, which is not capable of waging war.

Our problem begins from a security standpoint; the rest are just the results of that. This is true for the general population, as well. The military failures are what make the people ready to give up their determination to stand strong. For this reason, they ask for a withdrawal. They tell the people great things about peace and hope and a “new Middle East,” but the reality is quite pathetic.

Aren’t the intensive military exercises the air force is carrying out over Lebanon, military enough for you?

I can promise you that if one time, G-d forbid, the Hizballah succeeds in shooting down a plane, the air force will stop attacking, just like the naval commando did four years ago. You’re not immune forever. The fact that we can shell them from the air means nothing.

What do you identify as the army’s breaking point?

The army is completely political, and not professional. It was founded by the Hagana for the purpose of protecting the government of Mapai and Ben Gurion. The I.D.F. was built on the foundations of the Hagana. That was the army’s first sin – an army built by people whose mission was political, not military. They were just never willing to admit their mistakes.

Unfortunately, they tried to hide and censor every error throughout the wars, starting with the War of Liberation until today. So they don’t allow us to find our weak points and learn any lessons. You know that an infrastructure that doesn’t reveal its weak points has to fold. The I.D.F. has folded, and you can see this by examining everything it has done in the past 25 years. We failed in the War of Attrition, we failed in the Yom Kippur War, and we failed in Lebanon, too. Whatever we attempted, failed.

According to this view of things, how is it that we still exist?

First of all, from a Jewish perspective, Hashem watches over us. However, Chazal say that you may not rely on a miracle, and indeed, miracles don’t happen every day. The enemy, although it doesn’t have tremendous capabilities, is constantly improving its military might. Since the Yom Kippur War, Egypt has become extremely strong, and if we lost during the Yom Kippur War, today we can actually lose the country, chalila.

I repeat this to everyone, including Lubavitcher Chassidim who feel strongly about matters concerning Eretz Yisroel. The question is not whether we will rule over the Kotel or Har HaBayis, or over Chevron or Sh’chem. If we continue on the path we’ve been taking, the question is — although it is hard to think about it or say it — whether or not we will continue to exist.

People are not asking that question. They are asking whether we should leave Lebanon or not. What do you think?

In my opinion the question is not about leaving Lebanon. We are fleeing Lebanon just like the United States fled from Vietnam. The difference between the Americans and us is that the Vietnamese couldn’t annihilate the United States! True, they lost some international control, but America recovered. If we retreat from Lebanon, the danger is far greater, for all the Arab nations are watching to see what will happen. Syria, Iraq, Egypt, and Iran are waiting to see how things will work out. If we flee because of the Hizballah, they will be convinced to advance, and then we will have to contend not with guerilla forces, but with organized military might in all-out war.

In my opinion, people don’t appreciate the depth of the dilemma. They attempt to portray every issue in a superficial and populist manner, and don’t get to the bottom of the processes and events that occur. They act like ostriches and say that everything is okay.

Maybe if we withdraw and sign peace accords everything will be better?

There is no question that even if there will be a peace accord, there will be no peace. As far as the Arabs are concerned, peace does not mean conciliation on a religious, national, or social level.

The Arabs hate Israel because Israel is the bone in their throat. Even if we were to make some deal with them and give them territorial possessions, we wouldn’t eradicate the hatred they have towards us. On the contrary, giving away land intensifies the danger. If they get land, we become weaker and they become stronger, and then all-out war may break out.

How do you envision that occurring?

For example, they will demand that we go back to the borders of the Green Line and dismantle all the settlements. Of course, we will refuse, at least that’s the way it looks now. Then they will say that since we weren’t ready to give back what we took from them by force in war, they will take it back from us in war. It is quite likely that in such a war we would not lose as we did in the Yom Kippur War, but we would simply give up.

Do you see a real threat for all-out war with the neighboring countries?

Definitely. The danger exists as long as there are religious and national disputes. War will not begin as long as we are strong and they fear we will beat them. In the case of all-out war, we cannot rely on the U.S. As the navi describes it, “it’s like leaning on a broken reed.” It’s possible that the U.S. will stop taking an interest in us. It is very likely that in another few years, a U.S. president will be far more interested in the many millions of Arabs and their oil fields than five million Israeli citizens. That’s why we cannot fall back on the U.S. and their guarantees as a reason to give up all of our strategic holdings.

Why isn’t the man on the street afraid of what you’re saying?

People don’t understand it, not even senior military people. For 50 years they have been brainwashing the people about our amazing military might, to the point that this has become an article of faith. A person has to believe in something, and so one of the articles of faith of the secular Israeli is faith in the army.

Another reason is that our country operates Bolshevik style with everything under the government’s control. The editorial boards, which champion secular culture are sustained by the government, which is why they aren’t critical of it.

In your opinion, how can we get the army into shape?

The solution is not more tanks and mortars. As I said, the military establishment is like an atrophied muscle, and it requires sweeping reforms. We have to overhaul the system completely. The moment the army becomes something whose sole purpose is to prepare for war and to provide security, the whole situation will change.

How do you explain the fact that Barak, the chief of staff, who was awarded five medals, is leading the army down the drain?

It’s all an illusion, a mirage. Barak was one of the worst chiefs of staff in the history of the I.D.F. He failed at everything he did. If we look to see who were the leaders of the military throughout the 18 years of failure in Lebanon, today you will find them in positions of foreign policy. It was Ehud Barak, prime minister today; Chief of Staff Lipkin Shachak, who today serves as a minister in the government; Chief of the Northern Command was Yitzchok Mordechai, also a minister in the government. These people failed throughout.

You can say that every chief of staff handed over a worse army to the next chief of staff than the one he inherited. The army today is at an all-time low, to the point that a soldier in a paratrooper unit serving in Lebanon says that he doesn’t agree to attacking, and he’s praised for that. This is a system gone haywire.

I think we have the tools to change this situation, but we have to want to use them and understand what is going on.

What would you say to a mother who says she doesn’t want her son to die in Lebanon?

A country doesn’t take mothers’ desires into account. A country needs an army in order to defend itself from enemies both within and without. Mothers can express their opinion during elections.

Let’s think for a moment. Why is it that the mother doesn’t want her son to serve in Lebanon? Because she sees how the army is being run. If the army were run properly, the mother would be willing to pay the price. Unfortunately, the hysterical reactions on the part of mothers is ruining the war against the Hizballah.

Can you offer any hope?

There is some hope, but woe to such hope. Our hope depends on the enemy’s lack of military capability. From a military standpoint, the Arabs are behind the times and they don’t manage to improve much, despite the huge amount of arms they buy and warehouse. Egypt, for example, is indeed fully fortified and armed, but there is famine there, the economy is faltering and the internal government system is badly run.

The situation isn’t at all simple. Woe to the country who has to rely on the fact that the enemy won’t attack them because it is weaker.

What do you say to the fact that Yesha and Yerushalayim are being discussed?

It’s all connected. Since the military establishment is weak, we keep making concessions, and in order to achieve an agreement they would even relinquish Yerushalayim! Ten years ago, who would have believed that the government would dare to give up the Golan Heights?

Our problem is that we have an enemy who wants to annihilate us, even were we to live in the most narrow of borders. If we give them additional land, we weaken ourselves and strengthen their motivation to press on.

And the Left doesn’t understand this?

The problem is people are tired. The Left thinks that if we give back land and go back to the borders of ‘67, motivation will return because then the war will be in our very house. They are mistaken of course, because things won’t end there.

How far can it go?

The Arabs’ goal right now is to push us back to the borders of ‘67. They say they want to return Israel to its “natural size” and then they talk about returning Israel to the borders of November 1929, the Partition borders of the U.N. In other words, they want to have Yaffo, Ramla, and the western Galil, and they want Yerushalayim to be an international city.

Will Israel agree to this?

I don’t know. Under the circumstances, you reach a moment when the crisis is so acute that you look for an alternative. Unfortunately, there are plenty of people who are ready to accept this. Our self-confidence is very low. Maybe things will improve and people will regain their senses and start taking control of the situation. That would stop the withdrawals.

It has happened before. In the middle of the ‘50’s our self confidence was low until the “Unit 101” came and began beating the enemy mercilessly, changing everything. What “Unit 101” accomplished was mainly to boost morale in the I.D.F. Today as well, we need very serious changes in order to get back on our feet once again. Halevai it should happen.



A person has to believe in something, and so one of the articles of faith of the secular Israeli is faith in the army.





Our army is more of an ideological army than a professional army, which is what it should be.




If we continue on the path we’ve been taking, the question is — although it is hard to think about it or say it — whether or not we will continue to exist.





The army today is at an all-time low, to the point that a soldier in a paratrooper unit serving in Lebanon says that he doesn’t agree to attacking, and he’s praised for that. This is a system gone haywire.



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