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The IDF' invasion into matters where it doesn't belong reached a new low last week, when the manpower unit in the General Staff, headed by Maj. Gen. Elazar Stern, conducted a public opinion poll. Stern, a favorite of Chief of Staff Moshe Ya'alon, had his subordinates in the behavioral sciences department order female soldiers to call civilians and ask questions - not pure military questions, like the efficacy of the M-16 versus the Galil, or whether flanking from right or left works best, but over subjects embroiled in political dispute - the evacuation of the settlements and the defense budget. Presumably, the IDF hoped the answers would help its campaigns to avoid participating in the evacuation and to increase its budget, the same budget that paid for the poll.

According to the twisted logic that enabled Ya'alon and Stern to allow the behavioral sciences department to turn to civilians, some of whom were probably horrified to hear from the General Staff by phone and ready to say whatever they thought the army wanted them to say, it would be easy to figure where this will continue: in an angry appearance at the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, the chief of staff or his predecessor, Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz, pull out data showing that nine out of ten Israelis trust considerably the senior command of the IDF, while only three of 10 Israelis trust the prime minister and two make fun of the Knesset. The hint will be obvious, like the answer to a question that has yet to be included in an IDF poll: Considering the chaos in the country, would you be in favor of a military coup d'etat?

Not that heaven forbid the IDF wants to undertake a putsch. It just wants to know, for its database, if it has the right to collect intelligence about the civilian public and the political echelon.

Together with the chief of staff's standards that every lieutenant general receives, Ya'alon received from his predecessor the axiom that "the IDF does not choose its missions on its own." The desire to dodge the order to evacuate the settlements shows that the army does do its own choosing. It not only chooses its assignments, but also tries to execute its choice.

The government is also guilty of that, because it gave the army supreme authority over the assessment of the intelligence, the secrets of history, and the citizenry in the framework of the Home Front Command. When the command was formed, at the initiative of then-defense minister Moshe Arens, it included the Population Behavior Branch. Through that crack it was possible to stick not only a thermometer into the public, but also a tube.

In lectures from a seminar two years ago on "State-Army Relations" that were recently published in "Safra and Saifa," the journal of the Israel Association for Military History, affiliated with Tel Aviv University, Arens provided an official confirmation for what was until now only journalistic reporting. One of the clashes between him and then-chief of staff Ehud Barak, Arens said, "dealt with the establishment of a separate department in the Defense Ministry, for special forces. Barak thought the department should be part of the military framework and under the direct command of the chief of staff. I was of the view that such a department must be under the political echelon, in the civilian administration. We had a tough argument. There were hints that he would quit if I insisted. I held my ground, and that has what has prevailed until now."

In mid-April 1991, two weeks after taking up his job, there was a threat, not a real worry, that chief of staff Barak would quit, but the dispute between the two echelons was substantive. Barak based his argument on the Basic Law for the Army, which puts all the armed forces in the country under the authority of the IDF, from mortars to nuclear bomb. Arens said that special forces in every country are controled in every state by the civilian administration. The defense minister's assistant who supported Barak's appointment as chief of staff, Maj. Gen. Yisrael Tal, was given the authority to find a compromise. The one he came up with repaired some of the chief of staff's damaged pride, but made clear that the safety and trigger are in the hands of the political echelon.

This evening, at the Armored Corps Memorial at Latrun, many of Tal's friends and admirers will celebrate his 80th birthday. In addition to his place of honor in the history of making the army battle-ready, Tal participated in several events critical to the history of relations between the army and government: he was on the general staff and commander of a corps on the southern front in May 1967, when the IDF was pressing the government to go to war; he was deputy chief in the Yom Kippur War; he was the commander of the south who refused - at the cost of his chance of becoming chief of staff - to obey a rogue order from Moshe Dayan to renew the fighting at the end of 1973; and he was the assistant to then-defense minister Ariel Sharon, who during the Lebanon War opposed demands from officers that he resign.

The government's control over the army has experienced its ups and downs in the decades that Tal was involved in security and defense. Now, with Sharon and Mofaz, Ya'alon and Stern, it is at its low point.