The Trouble With the IDF
There’s nothing so heart-warming as to read here, in Jerusalem, about the tremendous success of the annual gala dinner of the Friends of the IDF – one of those organizations whose passion and commitment routinely defeats even the most jaded cynicism. That night in New York the FIDF collected 26 million dollars, two and a half million more than the last year. This generosity was rewarded by a speech from the IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz, with the “Iron Dome” battery serving as a backdrop. Donors and guests went home certain that they’ve contributed yet again to a valiant and beloved institution which is doing God’s own work protecting the Jewish people.
Up to a point, this is still true. Nevertheless, it was a good thing that the FIDF gala took place in New York and not in Ashdod or Ashkelon, because at the same time that the guests gathered at the Waldorf Astoria in the spirit of giving and love, the feeling on the empty streets and in the bomb shelters of the Israeli South was one of impotence and rage. Several days of incessant bombardment, wailing sirens and mortal dread, of disrupted life and traumatized children brought the esteem for the military leadership to such lows that when the home front command ordered the schools of the South to re-open, most of the mayors and the parent committees have simply defied the order – and were proven right when the “agreed” ceasefire was ruptured by new rocket attacks.
For those who had to endure the rocket attacks from Gaza, the much-vaunted “Iron Dome” is not a testament to Israeli technology and American generosity, but a grim reminder of rockets to come. Since the system isn’t perfect, civilians under its protection are still forced to seek shelter each time terrorists launch a missile. The insanely expensive system protected the major cities and prevented widespread damage to property, yet it could not help the residents lead a normal life.
Meanwhile, the military commanders had openly acknowledged that, by keeping casualties to a minimum, the “Iron Dome” has allowed “operational flexibility” in retaliation. For too many people in the bomb shelters, this sounded suspiciously like an excuse to do nothing.
Despite the bombastic rhetoric, the promises of top Israeli military brass to protect the citizens of the Jewish state ring hollow – not because the country lacks the necessary hardware or the brave soldiers to do so, but because of the moral rot at the very top. The main lesson that Israeli generals took from the debacle that was the Second Lebanon war was that such adventures are to be avoided, because as long as the military isn’t acting, it cannot be held accountable. Instead of being gung-ho and aggressive, the Israeli High Command prefers to err on the side of caution and leave the politicians to explain to the enraged public why the best army in the region cannot prevent a terrorist gang from lobbing rockets and mortar shells over the border, or why it cannot find and retrieve a kidnapped soldier 5 miles from this border, pushing the politicians to conduct a humiliating and dangerous prisoner exchange instead.
But if the Israelis aren’t satisfied with the quality of security they get in exchange for more than 60 billion shekels plus 3 billion dollars courtesy of the American taxpayer per annum, they should look in the mirror. Despite the scandals, the failures and the mismanagement, the IDF still remains a sacred cow and a criticism-free zone. When the Defense minister and the Chairman of the parliamentary Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee are both ex-Chiefs of Staff, when the Army Spokesman is the main source for and the strongest influence in the local press, and the Treasury is bereft of the effective instruments of control over the military budget, the civilian oversight of the army becomes drastically impaired.
Shielded by this veneration, Israeli military bureaucrats behave just like any others – they waste money, promote their cronies, neglect their duties and bicker. Usually those quarrels are kept from the public, protected by the watchful eye of the Army Spokesman and, if necessary, by military censorship. But during the last year the rivalry between the IDF Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi and the Defense Minister Ehud Barak became so acute that the veil of secrecy was finally ripped off.
Let us hope that the distinguished contributors of the FIDF will never get the chance to leaf through the pages of the brave and necessary book “The Pit”, written by Dan Margalit and Ronen Bergman. Despite threats and harassment, Bergman and Margalit have kicked the hornets’ nest and exposed the Byzantine ways of the former Chief of Staff and his clique, together with the cases of outright corruption in the most prestigious – and most secret – army units. While the country awaits the publication of the full report by the State Comptroller on the so-called “Harpaz affair”, information leaked so far confirms those accusations, telling, in sordid detail, the story of Ashkenazi’s efforts to subvert the intent of the political authority and to derail the appointment of his chosen successor.
No matter – the day after the Comptroller submitted his draft report, Ashkenazi inaugurated the …”Gabi Ashkenazi Boulevard” in the township of Or Yehuda. In a biting article in “Haaretz”, commentator Ari Shavit accused the former Chief of Staff of corruption and rebellion. Still, so accustomed are the Israelis to the cult of the generals, that in the opinion polls a clear majority favored Ashkenazi. Instead of demanding to hold him accountable, the Leftist opposition (which considers him an ally who has potential to defeat Netanyahu) tried to cut short the “cooling-off” period during which he isn’t allowed to stand for public office.
Of course, those tales of backstabbing and neglect cannot obstruct the real face of the Israeli army – thousands upon thousands of citizen soldiers, brought together not just by the formal writ of the law, but by their commitment to protect their commonwealth and their readiness to make the ultimate sacrifice if needed. Their bravery, their morality, their martial spirit are not in doubt. But the leadership of this army is in trouble, and this problem cannot be solved by more money. Only when the Israeli public’s attitude to the military will become more sober and more demanding, when the military budgets will become truly transparent and civilian oversight effective, both the Israelis and their friends in the US can be sure that the money they give so selflessly is gainfully spent.