It's the IDF Chief vs. Reserves Officer in Battle Over Army's Future

Maj. Gen. (res.) Yohanan Locker's committee proposals to reduce privileges and waste in the army could dominate the term of the new chief of staff.

GPO

Senior Israel Defense Forces officials regard themselves as the victims of a hit-and-run accident arranged by Maj. Gen. (res.) Yohanan Locker.

The head of a committee examining the defense budget, Locker was considered by the chief of staff and generals as being one of their own. But Locker, who last week even attended a ceremony in which his former Israel Air Force subordinate Amikam Norkin received the rank of major general, has made an effort in the past year to free himself from the bonds of the defense establishment. The connection with the IDF was maintained, but only up to a point.

The committee members last met with Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot at the start of this year, even before Eisenkot was appointed to his present position. The next time the General Staff heard from Locker was when he submitted his final report to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the beginning of the month. As far as the army brass is concerned, Locker is presenting the report as a fait accompli, without conducting a sufficiently open dialogue regarding its conclusions.

A belated holding action initiated by the IDF in recent weeks has not really been successful. Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon and Eisenkot managed to get publication of the report postponed – giving them an opportunity to peruse the final report (and to be shocked by it) – but they were unable to influence it. Locker is refusing to reopen the committee’s work for negotiation.

The main remaining question centers on Netanyahu’s opinion. The prime minister does not tend to make strategic decisions quickly, certainly not when it comes to budgetary issues. In recent years, he has usually decided in favor of the defense establishment in its annual disputes with the Finance Ministry, but this time he faces a question of principle. It may be more difficult to fudge it using the usual ploy of providing periodical supplements for exceptional security needs and events.

Meanwhile, while waiting for Netanyahu’s decision, the army is firing with all its guns. Ten days ago, the chief of staff sent a letter to career officers, promising to protect them from harm. Since the beginning of the week, there has been a briefing with military correspondents and the subsequent presentation of the multi-year work plan (dubbed “Gideon”) by the IDF senior command staff, headed by the chief of staff. Unsurprisingly, the army is expressing firm reservations about the Locker plan.

“That is how you shoot the IDF’s future capabilities between the eyes,” a senior officer told the correspondents. Such comments are being made even before Locker has held a press conference of his own regarding the report. While he holds back, at Netanyahu’s orders, the IDF is presenting its own version of the report and planting its negative attitude in the minds of the public.

It is not only the attempt to impose all the conclusions on the IDF or the fact that Locker’s decrees harm career soldiers primarily that have affronted Eisenkot.

Since assuming his position in February, the new chief of staff has formulated the first multi-year plan to be approved for the army in four years. Two multi-year plans were frozen and finally canceled during the tenure of his predecessor, Benny Gantz, with the army implementing only limited changes in its structure and organization. Even the relatively dramatic decision to dismiss about 5,000 career soldiers, which was made at the end of Gantz’s tenure, is being implemented mainly during Eisenkot’s .

The Gideon multi-year plan takes quite a few risks, including concessions that the General Staff considers tough. But with the imminent publication of the Locker report, the multi-year plan is liable to appear as a mild version of the committee’s recommendations – a temporary IDF bargaining position in the battle against implementing Locker’s conclusions.

Some of Locker’s recommendations really are far-reaching. They include shortening compulsory service for men to two years by 2020, a basic change in the IDF pension program, which will eliminate the bridge pension for most retirees, discharging thousands of additional career officers and a full adoption of the conclusions of the Goren Committee, which recommended reducing the benefits given to disabled IDF veterans and stiffening the criteria for receiving the status of disabled veteran.

These are significant steps, some of which will encounter legal and political problems – even if Netanyahu decides to approve them rather than burying the report slowly, as his government and that of Ehud Olmert did with the 2007 Brodet Committee report.

Most of the Gantz’s term was shadowed by crises related to manpower: A decline in motivation among draftees, frustration on the part of reservists and a blow to the public status of career soldiers. And then came the war in Gaza last year, which redefined Gantz’s tenure.

For Eisenkot, the war solved one of the problems that his predecessor had to deal with. As is usual in Israel, the war imbued draftees with a wave of motivation and patriotism, leading to full ranks in combat units at the present moment. An ambitious move being led by Eisenkot, to release 100,000 reservists from service, is designed to improve the atmosphere in the reserve units as well, and to retain primarily those who are suited for reserve duty and believe in its importance.

The career army is therefore beginning to look like the new chief of staff’s main problem during the first half of his term. Years of privileges, some of them exaggerated, have created public hostility toward the conditions enjoyed by most of those who serve and a sense of inordinate waste. Now, when the Locker Committee wants to change the situation with several sweeping moves, there may be a real crisis that will make it problematic for the IDF to hold on to the better staff officers in its ranks.