Winning Wars, Losing Hearts: IDF Enters Battlefield of Public Opinion

In recent years, the economic media have marked the army as a major target for attack for a long period of excess fat and waste; it has only recently begun to cope with the self-inflicted damage.

Amos Harel
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Amos Harel

On Monday, after receiving the Sokolow Prize for lifetime achievement, Guy Rolnik, founding editor of TheMarker website and financial daily and deputy publisher of the Haaretz Group, published a lengthy, polemical article in TheMarker, in which he enumerated the reasons for the ills of the Israeli economy. According to Rolnik, the primary cause of these problems, which affect millions: the defense establishment. The banks and their fees are only in second place.

The Israel Defense Forces is described in the article as “the army of the Lilliputians.” The country’s leaders, who are supposed to see to the public good, are portrayed by Rolnik as being connected at the navel to the vested interests of powerful pressure groups, headed by the security and defense branches. Therefore, instead of fixing the distorted structure of the national economy, they prefer to talk about preparing for a security threat that is deliberately inflated so that they can go on relentlessly upgrading.

Rolnik has inveighed for years against the privileges attained by those close to the faucets of power, enjoying the fruits of everything from unacceptable commercial transactions to inordinately large pensions. But his conclusion this week sounds even more blunt: Not only does the defense establishment constitute the greatest burden on the economy,  but there is not one iota of substantive justification for this state of affairs. In contrast to the past, Rolnik makes no distinction now between combat troops in the field and the officers at defense headquarters in Tel Aviv: The implication is that everyone is guilty. He also plays down the significance of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In his view, the country’s leaders are in the main using a diversionary tactic, which allows them to evade confronting pressing social challenges.

A few days earlier, in an interview in TheMarker, Prof. Oren Barak, who teaches political science and international relations at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, put forward a similar thesis about a covert “security network” whose members run the country and ratchet up the defense budget for their own purposes.

In recent years, the economic media have marked the army as a major target for attack. It has to be admitted that the IDF has a lot of this hostility coming to it, thanks to years of excess fat and waste; it has only recently begun to cope with the self-inflicted damage from this period. Another reason for the hostility lies in the fact that the army has had the upper hand vis-a-vis the Finance Ministry in most of the bureaucratic battles fought over the budget. The latest example came just two weeks ago, when the Knesset Finance Committee approved the government’s decision to restore to the defense budget 2.79 billion shekels (more than $804 million), to be taken from income tax surpluses – thereby erasing most of the cut of 3 billion shekels imposed on that budget half a year ago.

The army is barely present as a participant in public discourse over the country’s budgetary priorities,  a topic that grew more critical following the summer of social protest in 2011. IDF officers emerge to explain the army’s viewpoint only at particularly problematic junctures, on the eve of decisions by the government and the security cabinet, and what the top brass says is usually perceived as an little more than threats and scare tactics. Not long ago, a senior General Staff officer met with two economic columnists from Haaretz. The meeting ended with a complete lack of agreement, “like two hands that don’t succeed in meeting even to have one hand clapping,” according to one participant.

This media discussion is a worrisome phenomenon from the army’s point of view. The occupation of the West Bank does not really interest most of the public, notwithstanding the efforts of some Haaretz op-ed writers. Once the separation barrier was in place and the suicide attacks stopped, Nablus was no longer an hour from Tel Aviv, but, rather, on the dark side of the moon.

But complaints about excessive salaries, service conditions and early (and noncontributory) pensions in the IDF are something else again. Everyone knows the neighbor in their apartment building, be he a physician, economist or engineer, who serves in the career army in a largely civilian function, but nevertheless is planning to start a second career around the age of 45, after retiring from the IDF with a full pension. With the majority of the middle class feeling hemmed in by certain problems – the high cost of living, the housing bubble, a decline in the quality of service in health and education – they tend to vent their anger on those who are perceived as enjoying unfair privileges. It’s true that public opinion surveys continue to find consistent and stable support for the IDF. Indeed, the army has been the country’s most popular body over the years, and the nation believes in the chief of staff, the soldiers – and Roni Daniel too (the gung-ho Channel 2 defense analyst). In the long term, though, the General Staff knows it has a problem.

A presentation prepared by the General Staff’s Personnel Directorate in anticipation of the November 2013 draft, stated explicitly that “the perception of the situation regarding army-society relations is changing.” According to the presentation, the “people’s army” model (to which IDF senior officers continue to swear allegiance) has been eroded. The result is that a disparity has emerged between competing conceptions of the army: as a fighting organization and as a public organization.

Ranking officers talk about a security paradox. They point out that the feeling of personal security among Israelis has grown stronger in the past few years, in large part due to the IDF, which has restored its deterrent capability and operated judiciously in the territories and along the borders. Yet the diminished existential threat that the public feels it is facing now has strengthened the demand to take account of social needs above security needs.

“We are not alarmists,” a major general tells Haaretz. “Our intelligence surveys show a balanced, realistic picture, one that also emphasizes positive developments, such as the weakening of the conventional military threat to Israel and the dismantling of Syria’s chemical weapons stock. The country’s leaders have every right to decide on a change in the order of national priorities. But yes, we are starting to detect signs of a certain erosion in the army’s public status. If we become delegitimized, that will be bad for security, because the public’s trust is the most important element in the IDF’s ability to perform its missions.”

Media vs. military

Still, a large gap exists between the way the army grasps developments in the economic arena and the way its activities in this sphere are reflected in the media. Some issues raised by the army do indeed merit discussion, such as the large number of noncoms in the career army who are earning so little that they require income supplements. But when media outlets, spurred on by army officers, report emotionally that Chief of Staff Benny Gantz is a victim of discrimination because he earns less than Police Commissioner Yohanan Danino – it’s not clear what the IDF is trying to achieve. With an income of 77,000 shekels ($22,190) a month, Gantz doesn’t exactly have to pass the hat around. The very fact that the subject was raised did nothing to enhance respect for the chief of staff.

Last summer, under the hammer blow of the cut decreed by the government, the IDF deployed to implement an extensive plan involving painful organizational readjustments. Additional considerations also underlay the plan – the defense establishment’s ongoing outlays for salaries, pensions and rehabilitation of disabled veterans had grown immensely. At the same time, operational needs in new areas – notably the rocket interception systems (Arrow and Iron Dome missiles) and cyber warfare – have necessitated a considerable investment.

Changes in methods of combat (fewer conventional campaigns, greater need to deal with terrorism, guerrilla warfare and barrages of rockets) also necessitated redeployment.

The measures taken were far-reaching. Reserve armored brigades began to be disbanded, along with Israel Air Force squadrons and logistics formations, and the career army is slated to be slashed by 5,500 personnel (with only 1,000 new career people to be signed up in their place). The downsizing of the armored brigades is supposed to save about half a billion shekels ($144.1 million) over five years; personnel cuts will save some 6 billion shekels (almost $1.8 billion) in the same period. The IDF also announced a cut of 21 percent in the number of headquarters-based personnel (14 percent last year, 7 percent this year). The ranks of senior officers will be thinned out as well: Six of 90 brigadier generals will leave, along with 26 colonels out of a total of more than 400, and 7 percent of the lieutenant colonels in the career army.

Concurrently, the IDF adopted the extreme and controversial measure of cutting back on training. Last July, a large portion of reserve-unit training was suspended. This year, reserve battalions will not be called up for routine activity in the territories or along the borders, and training of the reserves will be limited to front-line units. The regular army will also train less and soldiers will be posted to long, arduous routine-security stints of eight to nine months. This week, in a meeting between the chief of staff and unit commanders and some brigade and division commanders, including the commander of the Golani infantry brigade, voiced sharp criticism of the training cuts and warned about a return to the poor functioning of the army that we witnessed during the Second Lebanon War.

At the same time, it was decided that salaries would not be touched, other than by the slashing of a few inordinate benefits. The argument made by members of the General Staff is that additional cuts will prompt outstanding officers to leave and in any case will be of little economic value. The General Staff does not consider the issue of the vast sums earmarked for rehabilitation and for pensions a subject to be decided by the army – that’s up to the government, and in particular, the defense minister.

The army will do what it’s told, but no directive is likely to come: There has never yet been a prime minister or a defense minister in this country who has been willing to order cuts in the benefits offered to disabled veterans, widows and bereaved parents.

Despite the current cuts, it’s worth recalling that between 2007 and 2012, the IDF experienced a period of abundance unrivaled since the decade that followed the Yom Kippur War of 1973. Unusually large resources were made available to the army in the wake of the trauma caused by the Second Lebanon War, in 2006. Large amounts were spent on retraining the ground forces, and on preparations for an attack – which has yet to take place – on Iran. At the same time, the career army also swelled, growing by 12 percent in this period, with salaries upgraded as well. The last two prime ministers, Ehud Olmert and Benjamin Netanyahu, lent a hand to this development. Dealing with the budget hike was probably the only area in which the defense minister and the chief of staff during that period – Ehud Barak and Gabi Ashkenazi – cooperated wholeheartedly.

Double bind

In the meantime, the IDF is buckling under a very large burden of salaries, pensions and rehabilitation, which combined account for more than half of the annual defense budget. The switch to a cumulative pension (into which the employee pays his share) was completed in 2003, but will not bear fruit for another decade and more. A kind of bottomless pit has been created, which will weigh heavily on defense spending and on the entire state budget in the years ahead. It’s possible that the various measures being planned by the IDF are still too modest in relation to the future economic situation.

It’s particularly interesting, in this context, to see what senior officers have to say when they enter the business world after retiring from the IDF. Suddenly, they seem to undergo a process of enlightenment. “The current career-army model is no longer appropriate,” says one officer who retired this year after holding a series of senior posts, most of them at combat level. He adds, “If the IDF does not take itself in hand, civil society will impose a solution on it, willy-nilly. That’s what happened in the last decade with the reserve service law, whose limitations on the length of time reservists can be called up are bad for the IDF.”

Even after the planned cuts, the IDF finds itself in a double bind, which is harmful to it in the long term: An officer corps that is too expensive and saddled with too many expensive officers at the intermediate level (lieutenant colonels and colonels, particularly because of the retirement age, which is too low in their rear-echelon posts), juxtaposed with a situation in which manpower is too cheap, in the form of rear-echelon soldiers in the regular army. Anyone who walks through a corridor in the towers of the defense establishment headquarters in Tel Aviv cannot but notice the large number of drivers and secretaries, as compared to any civilian organization.

In the final roll-call of the last pilots’ course, as in most official ceremonies, female soldiers lined up to have their picture taken with the chief of staff. In the current era, these soldiers think that a photo with the supreme commander is nothing short of terrific. The nation, as noted, loves the army and the affable officer who leads it. Gantz, in fact, has introduced a healthy atmosphere of substantive debate and skepticism into the army. After Dan Halutz, who was drummed out for his failure in the Second Lebanon War, and Gabi Ashkenazi, who saw the political hopes that had been woven around him unravel in the wake of the “Harpaz document affair” – the period of service of the present chief of staff appears to reflect a welcome return to normalcy. In what is apparently a calculated move, Gantz and the General Staff have cut back on the number of media interviews and declarations.

A few months ago, Gantz put forward an ambitious plan for the future of the army, which he calls “IDF 2025.” Two problems await the army on the way to the plan’s implementation: how to get through the years ahead peacefully, and how to find the resources for the intended changes. A major difficulty, about which not enough has been written, relates to the absence of a multiyear plan. The army has not had such a plan for the past two years, arguing that it has to wait for decisions by the civilian decision-makers. When the sergeant major in Pilon Base in the north gets up in the morning, it’s not certain that he understands where the large military organization is headed (and quite certain that he’s afraid that he too will be a victim of the coming wave of cuts). This lack of clarity in planning and in regard to the budget is interwoven with strategic uncertainties.

Even if the danger of large-scale wars has passed, there are more elements of instability in the big picture now, stemming from the dangers ranging from a dramatic outburst by the Palestinians in the West Bank, to the consolidation of extreme jihadist organizations on Israel’s borders with Syria, Lebanon and Egypt.

Amid the vast Middle East upheaval, the IDF has done its share to preserve security quiet. Gantz’s fourth and last year as chief of staff, which begins next month, could turn out to be more complicated.

Defense Minister Ya'alon with Israeli army soldiers along the northern border. The war of attrition on the Syrian side is barely felt on the Israeli side. December 2013Credit: Ariel Hermoni / Defense Ministry

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