Tuesday, January 8, 2013

February 1956: Ben Gurion Demands a New Miltary Doctrine

Today we're publishing an important document about Israel's military doctrine in the run-up to its second war in 1956. The document is a 40-page stenogram from the Ministers' Committee for Foreign Relations and Security, on February 19, 1956. We've looked at some earlier meetings of this committee, and heard how its members often kvetched that they were not taken seriously enough, and that their main job was the worthy but unexciting task of appointing Israeli diplomats to far-flung outposts. For whatever reason, on February 19, 1956, the committee suddenly found itself precisely where it wished to be: in the center of strategic planning, at a time when war with Egypt seemed a distinct possibility.

The beginning of the meeting reflected Ben Gurion's impatience with having to report at all. True, he brought with him Moshe Dayan, Chief of Staff Haim Laskov, Dayan's deputy, and a colonel from near the top of Military Intelligence. Yet he opened the meeting with ill grace: "OK, fellows, I hear you want to have a report. What is it you wish to hear? I'll bet each of you wants to hear about his village and its role in the case of war? Everyone likes to see his name in print. Some people prepare themselves a visiting card, others want a book; they (he seems to have been talking to the generals) want a whole book."

So the generals launched into a detailed report about the size of the IDF, how many tanks and cannons it had, how many airplanes it had and how many had been ordered from France, and so on. Back then, lots of folks in lots of countries would have given their right hand for a time machine to read the ISA blog on Israel's military capabilities; but most of those people are long since dead, and when we submitted this document to the declassifiers and their ilk, they didn't bat an eyelash. 1956 is a long time ago, and there's not much of present value in knowing how many fighter-bombers Israel had at the time and how much it wished it had. Though it is interesting to hear the confidence in the voices of the generals and the doubt in the voices of the civilians ministers: "Are you sure that's enough equipment? Really?"

Then the discussion went off to the section Ben Gurion had suspected was anyway the real point of the exercise: The ministers wished to know how many men would remain in each agricultural settlement, and why the ones important to each of them were being categorized wrongly. A word of explanation: as Dayan explained, each village was catalogued as category A, B or C. Category A villages would see a largish number of men (39) remain at home even in a time of full mobilization, while the reserve of unmobilized men in the other categories would be smaller. The categories had recently been updated, so that some places which had previously been regarded as really important were now degraded - and the ministers were peeved. They went back and forth about the criteria, the considerations, and - while always presenting their positions as principled, not personal - the reader may join Ben Gurion in suspecting otherwise.

The interesting thing is that Ben Gurion had mostly been very quiet so far (more than halfway through the meeting). He had introduced the generals, and since then had said nothing except once, when he muttered that he thought the generals were being far too generous in handing out exemptions.

Then (on page 22 of 40) he suddenly joined the discussion, and changed its entire structure. The problem with everything that has been said here, he said, is that you're all thinking about the previous war [of 1947-49]. That time there were battles over lots of villages, and we protected each and every village, often by arming the villagers and supporting their local efforts. Next time, it wouldn't be like that. Next time, the enemy wouldn't waste its time on little kibbutzes on the road to Tel Aviv: the enemy would aim for Tel Aviv, and Haifa, and Jerusalem. And Israel would protect itself and its cities with a modern mobile army, not a ragtag militia spread out over hundreds of settlements. This army would need mobility, and armaments, but mostly, it would need fighters. And the reserve fighters would be drawn from all over, and they would defend their village on the road to Tel Aviv as soldiers in the army, not armed yeomen in their own front yard. Which is why he was dissatisfied with some of what the generals had been saying, but from the opposite side of the discussion: they were willing to leave too many capable men at home, when they would be more effective in the army.

The funny thing, or sad thing, is that once Ben Gurion finished presenting his position, everyone professed to agree with him, but then they went back to the previous discussion as if they hadn't been listening. "Yes, of course, but what about Kibbutz Mishmar Haemek? And Meggido?"

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