A platoon commander and his men take over a Palestinian cab without authorization, drive around the streets of Dahariya and injure a teenager. A soldier in Battalion 51 of the Golani Brigade is left behind in the Gaza Strip. The head of the navy has resigned, and finding a replacement has proven difficult. It sounds like another normal week from the time of defense minister Amir Peretz and chief of staff Dan Halutz - who left so that the spirit of the Israel Defense Forces could be rejuvenated. But it turns out that Ehud Barak and Gabi Ashkenazi are no alchemists. They too will not be able to turn lead into gold, because the last Lebanon war, which supposedly exposed exceptional deficiencies that led Peretz-Halutz to be replaced with Barak-Ashkenazi, was not a deviation. The IDF's performance last year, like its past and present performance, is the standard.
When the Brodet Report on defense spending was discussed at the Sunday cabinet meeting, Ashkenazi reportedly threatened the ministers that they would bear the responsibility for refusing to grant the defense establishment the budget it requires to meet the needs it presented. Ashkenazi is correct in how he defines responsibility, but he risks becoming a hypocrite if he, like his predecessors, makes do with a smaller budget yet stays in his post - a grumbling partner, reluctantly sharing responsibility with the politicians above him. The General Staff's spin will explain that everything is a matter of priorities, that one must make do with what is available, and that leaders are tested by how they deal with difficult situations and not by running away every time they are challenged. Moreover, they will say, this is not the time to shake up the system again.
As prime minister (and defense minister), Barak arrogantly decided in 2000 against the budgetary demands of chief of staff Shaul Mofaz. Now, temporarily free of the burden of the premiership, he is again the one with demands. Barak and Ashkenazi are products of more than 30 years of IDF service each, and cannot break free of the standard officer's mindset. If they have to choose between rewarding professional officers and conscripts, they favor the professionals, so much so that they rob the conscripts. For example, if the army is fat and wasteful, none of that is trickling down to the junior officers or the non-commissioned officers who, more often than not, need to pay out of their own pocket (in the use of their private cell phones, for example) for what is missing from the defense budget.
The incidents at Dahariya and Gaza suggest a new approach is needed to improve the quality of the officers. Appointments have many fathers, yet in times of trouble they can deny their fatherhood. The commander of Battalion 51, for example, takes his orders from the Golani Brigade commander, who is subordinate to the commander of Division 36 on the Golan Heights, who receives his orders from GOC Northern Command. But when he is deployed across from Khan Yunis, he is subordinate to the commander of the Southern Brigade, who takes orders from the commander of the Gaza Division, who receives commands from GOC Southern Command. Which of these two chains of command is responsible for the conduct of the battalion commander when a soldier is left behind? Only a committee of inquiry headed by Doron Almog, whose report on the conduct of Division 91 during the Second Lebanon War resulted in the resignation of its commander, has the answers.
In a position paper by the National Security College, Brigadier General Yossi Hayman, who teaches there, and who is slated to head the strategic planning and foreign relations department of the General Staff, proposes stopping the promotion of cronies, a method that has been common in the IDF since its inception, and adopting the American method of appointment committees, because they are more immune to pressure and influence. Hayman bases his views in part on talks with a U.S. Marines officer, one of the foreign students at the college this year, and formerly the Marines attache to the IDF. Both systems have their shortcomings, Hayman writes, but the way the Americans do it is less problematic.
If Barak and Ashkenazi grit their teeth and stay in their jobs, in spite of the budgetary risks, they will be able at least to alter how appointments are made. Quantity is something dictated to them; quality is up to them.
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