Commentary Magazine

Knives, Tanks, and Missiles by Eliot A. Cohen, Michael J. Eisenstadt, and Andrew J. Bacevich; The Sword and the Olive by Martin

Knives, Tanks, and Missiles: Israel’s Security Revolution
by Eliot A. Cohen, Michael J. Eisenstadt, and Andrew J. Bacevich
Washington Institute. 154 pp. $20.95

The Sword and the Olive: A Critical History of the Israeli Defense Force
by Martin Van Creveld
Public Affairs. 448 pp. $27.50

An appendix to Eliot Cohen, Michael Eisenstadt, and Andrew Bacevich’s Knives, Tanks, and Missiles lists “Five Scenarios for War” between Israel and its neighbors—“each of which,” write the authors, “illustrates the variety of demands on the Israeli military.”

The five are:

  • An “Insurrection in Palestine” by “a spontaneous popular uprising, sustained guerrilla warfare sponsored by the Palestinian Authority, . . . independent terrorist action, . . . or a combination of all three.”
  • “Israeli Intervention in Jordan,” particularly “in the event of a move to bring Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza and on the East Bank under unified Palestinian rule.”
  • “Violation or Abrogation of the Peace Treaty With Egypt.”
  • “War with Syria,” which might result either from a pre-planned Syrian attack on the Golan Heights or “from a deteriorating situation in South Lebanon, where Iranian-supported Hezbollah guerrillas have inflicted a steady trickle of casualties on Israel.”
  • “Weapons of Mass Destruction from the Outer Ring”—that is, from “states such as Iraq, Iran, or Libya that are acquiring nonconventional weapons and the means to deliver them. A nonconventional attack would most probably occur against the backdrop of a protracted and bloody guerrilla war with the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, or a regional conflict in which Israel is targeted to deter U.S. intervention.”

In short, as Cohen (professor of strategic studies at Johns Hopkins), Eisenstadt (senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy), and Bacevich (executive director of the Johns Hopkins Foreign Policy Institute) correctly observe, Israel, five years after signing the Oslo agreement, is faced by more varied military threats than ever before. And, as they do not observe in so many words, it is also faced by the possibility of having to cope with all of these threats simultaneously. It is not particularly difficult to construct a “super-scenario” that would join at least four of the above scripts together. (An invasion of Jordan seems, under present circumstances, far-fetched, certainly in conjunction with the others.)

The super-scenario might begin with a Palestinian insurrection, most likely timed for next spring or summer when the Palestinian Authority declares an independent state in all of Gaza, the West Bank, and East Jerusalem. This might develop into a full-scale war with Syria and possibly Egypt as these countries are drawn in, either spontaneously or by prior coordination, on the Palestinian side. The war might then be augmented by an all-out Hezbollah assault on Israeli troops in Lebanon, and be accompanied by, or escalate into, attacks on Israeli cities by either conventionally or nonconventionally armed missiles fired from other Arab or Muslim countries.

Israel might thus have to deal, at one and the same time, with a two-front war against formidable Arab armies; separate guerrilla campaigns with the Hezbollah and the Palestinians (the former shelling Israeli targets in the Galilee, the latter attacking Jewish settlements and settlers in the occupied territories); massive terror bombings in its streets; and incoming missiles more damaging than those that fell during the Gulf war.

Could it cope?



Neither Knives, Tanks, and Missiles nor Martin Van Creveld’s The Sword and the Olive (subtitled “A Critical History of the Israeli Defense Force”) attempts to answer this question explicitly because neither asks it explicitly. Yet both books, in different ways, imply that such a nightmare is possible—and that, given the current state of both the Israeli army and the Israeli public, there is every reason to worry not only about the price that Israel would have to pay to prevail but whether it would prevail at all.

When it comes to the Israeli Defense Force (IDF), Martin Van Creveld, it must be said, has always been a worrier. Currently a military historian at the Hebrew University, he has acquired over the years a reputation as a rather brilliant alarmist, one of those annoying analysts who always predict the worst and (since the worst sometimes happens) are occasionally proved right. Indeed, up to its final pages, The Sword and the Olive is rather tame by Creveldian standards. A fairly conventional history of the genesis and development of the Israeli army and of the wars it has fought, it is replete with sentences and passages like, “The Gaza Strip thus having been cut off from the Sinai, the Israeli forces split. With Dayan still following in its wake, the 27th Brigade, having rested a few hours, turned southwest along the coastal road,” etc.

Van Creveld is not at his sharpest or most interesting in this kind of writing, and—many similar accounts of Israel’s military campaigns already existing—it is a puzzle why he chose to do so much of it here. But he hits his stride in the book’s final chapters, where, turning away from the major wars fought by the Israeli army between 1948 and 1982 (to the conduct of which, despite some not very original fault-finding, he gives reasonably high marks), he surveys the IDF’s current state and the developments leading up to it. Here his criticism is withering.

Heavily bureaucratized, no longer aggressive or imaginative, and overreliant on technology, today’s IDF, Van Creveld writes, bears “little resemblance to the superb fighting machine it once was.” Its conscripts “scandalously underpaid” and its officer corps pampered and spoiled, the army has become “soft, bloated, strife-ridden, responsibility-shy, and dishonest.” Both the “quantity and quality of training” have dropped. Morale has declined. Most conscripts no longer want to serve in combat units. There is “hardly an officer left who has commanded so much as a brigade in a real war.” And one “shudders to think what IDF commanders and troops would do if under full-scale attack by real-life soldiers armed not with rocks and knives but with missiles, cannons, and tanks.”

Van Creveld blames several factors for this “lamentable” situation. One is the intrinsic nature of contemporary hi-tech warfare, which calls for highly-trained, professional cadres that do not easily meld with the rank-and-file of a (in Van Creveld’s opinion, anachronistic) “people’s army” like Israel’s. A second is the prolonged occupation of the Palestinian territories and the attempted suppression of the intifada, which, according to him, demoralized an entire generation of troops and forced them to spend their time chasing stone-throwing children instead of training for serious combat. A third is the growing affluence and moral flabbiness of an Israeli public whose reactions to Iraqi missiles in the Gulf war revealed that it was “losing courage in the face of adversity and turning into . . . cowards who no longer had what it takes to endure and fight.” Concerned for its own lives and those of its sons in uniform far more than for the life of the nation, this public, Van Creveld believes, has created an atmosphere, ultimately pervading the army, too, in which minimizing losses rather than inflicting greater ones on the enemy has become the supreme military goal.

More academic and less pessimistic in tone, Knives, Tanks, and Missiles nevertheless comes to many of the same conclusions. Militarily, the Middle East is “undergoing profound changes,” the authors write. Israel’s famed “militia model” of well-trained reservists has become “obsolete,” and there has been a drop in “soldier motivation.” As a result, the IDF is being forced to become “small, elite, and professional,” a process that will convert it to an “Americanized officer corps” and lead to a partial abandonment of universal conscription. There is also a growing disparity and tension between “a strategic environment that is becoming more complex and a society that is assigning a higher priority to nonsecurity interests”—a society with “a diminishing willingness to accept casualties” in battle, much less in the streets of its cities. In sum, “like the United States in Korea [or, one might add, Vietnam], the Israelis could well find that . . . victory [in a war against the Arabs] would come at a cost in human life that is unacceptable to a modern liberal state.”



Fundamentally, neither Van Creveld nor Cohen, Eisenstadt, and Bacevich are saying anything that has not been said in recent years by many Israelis, military specialists and nonspecialists alike. It has even been speculated, for example, that Yitzhak Rabin’s seemingly impulsive and uncharacteristic decision to surrender the Golan Heights to Syria (a deal that was never consummated) and sign with the PLO at Oslo was at least partly motivated by a lengthy meditation on the growing weaknesses of Israel’s defense posture and the need to prevent another all-out Arab-Israeli war that might end badly.

Better strike a bargain, Rabin is said to have concluded, while Israel still looks strong than wait for the Arabs to find out that it no longer is. It would be ironic if all he managed to accomplish was to create another front on which 40,000 well-armed Palestinian policemen, fighting as small guerrilla units, would be able to pin down one or two Israeli divisions.

Of course, this is not the first time that Israel has faced the future with trepidation about its military capacities. Before the 1956 Sinai campaign, then-Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion reportedly expressed his concern that a new “espresso generation” would not fight as well as its predecessors in the War of Independence of 1948; and in 1967, the fear of annihilation that swept the country in the weeks before the Six-Day War, out of proportion as it appeared in the war’s aftermath, was real enough. Perhaps, as both the catastrophic beginning and still-not-achieved end of the 1973 Yom Kippur War and the 1982 war in Lebanon appear to demonstrate respectively, it is far better to underestimate one’s abilities than to overestimate them. The worst thing that can happen to an army is to think it can relax.

At any rate, if Israel does have to fight an unprecedented, multi-faceted war next spring or summer, one can only hope the IDF is prepared. Armies being highly secretive in the nature of things, this is not something an outsider can judge. But what can be said with some certainty is that, as of the moment, the Israeli public is not prepared. On the contrary: not wanting to create a mood of anxiety, or to give ammunition to an opposition that accuses it of destroying the peace that Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres engineered, the Netanyahu government continues to act and speak as if war were a distant and merely theoretical possibility.

But it is not; it is, just possibly, very close. And since it may involve the general public as no Arab-Israeli war has done since 1948, the public’s behavior, if war does break out, will very likely help determine its outcome. Martin Van Creveld is right to be worried.


About the Author

Hillel Halkin is a columnist for the New York Sun and a veteran contributor to COMMENTARY. Portions of the present essay were delivered at Northwestern University in March as the Klutznick Lecture in Jewish Civilization.

Pin It on Pinterest

Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
for full access to
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
Don't have a log in?
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.