The Israeli Army's Newest Bitter Battle

The proposals in the Locker report have provoked an ugly power struggle, with the IDF fighting attempts to force it to be under civilian oversight.

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot, left, and Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon at an army exercise earlier this year. Credit: Ariel Hermony / Defense Ministry
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

One noteworthy aspect of the storm generated this week by the Locker Committee’s report on reforming the defense budget is the speed with which the defense establishment started treating the panel the same way it treats the Finance Ministry – and never mind that its chairman wore a uniform himself until a few years ago.

So far, the treasury has been little more than an observer. Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon commented on the fight only belatedly, and senior treasury officials are keeping mum. They were pleasantly surprised by the report, but for now, they’ll let the defense establishment keep pummeling the committee chairman, Maj. Gen. (res.) Yohanan Locker, until they see whether Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu defies expectations by seeking to implement Locker’s recommendations.

The fight over the report almost immediately turned exceptionally brutal. Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot initially led the attack, but when the assault on Locker turned too personal, he stepped back and ordered his subordinates to lower the volume.

Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon has no such qualms. When he received the report earlier this week, he was filled with righteous wrath. The report, he said, is “superficial, unbalanced and completely disconnected from reality,” and adopting its conclusions would be tantamount to gambling with Israel’s security.

Senior defense officials who spoke with journalists off the record charged that the treasury “hijacked the committee,” since the economists on the panel far outnumbered the two former generals. Moreover, they complained, neither of the generals had sufficient experience with planning and personnel issues, and they “didn’t display enough spine” in standing up to the treasury officials.

Ya’alon’s aggressive stance was also reflected in his decision to boycott a meeting with Kahlon and Locker that Netanyahu called on Wednesday afternoon. The defense minister argued that Locker had already done his job, so any discussion now should be only among the ministers.

But it’s hard to avoid the suspicion that he’s also furious with Locker personally. The last time he sounded this emotional was when he accused Yasser Arafat of fomenting terror even as he posed as Israel’s peace partner.

Perhaps Ya’alon thinks this aggressive approach is the only way to push Netanyahu to kill the report. But meanwhile, he is merely proving the report’s main charge against the Defense Ministry: Instead of supervising the IDF, it serves as the military’s flak jacket, and has offered no real alternatives to the panel’s proposals.

Ya’alon’s attack is being complemented by the Facebook forum organized by wives of career officers. The weeping and wailing there has already gone far beyond the substantive claims – some of them justified – that their protest began with. The General Staff’s manpower directorate fears the forum will merely ratchet up the tensions and further undermine morale among the officers.

Transparency needed

The report’s 77 pages provided a clear analysis of the system’s principal ills. The IDF, it said, conceals as much information as possible from the outside world while constantly seeking to increase its budget. In other words, the military suffers from the same problems that afflict most large organizations over time.

At times, the IDF’s vital fundamental goal – protecting the state – has gotten pushed aside by the organization’s narrower interests, including financial benefits to its own people. The lofty rhetoric about concern for the national welfare is undoubtedly upheld at the company or battalion level, but in the higher ranks, this concern is intertwined with others, which are always undeclared and sometimes even unwitting. That’s precisely why the defense budget needs more transparency and better outside supervision.

The report is a harsh indictment of the IDF’s planning and personnel policies. It repeatedly noted the lack of authoritative data about specific line items in the defense budget. The treasury, it wrote, doesn’t even know exactly how many officers the IDF has, and it also lacks full information about their wages and pensions. Even the IDF doesn’t have all this information, and it isn’t always aware of the economic implications of its decisions, the report added.

But the dispute has already gone beyond the report’s findings; the sides can’t even agree on how many times Locker and Eisenkot met before the report was submitted. Nor can they agree on who chose the panel’s members. The Defense Ministry claims the treasury vetoed the first 10 retired generals it proposed; sources close to the committee say it was the Defense Ministry that systematically vetoed nominees.

Nor is the defense establishment itself united. At a press briefing on Tuesday, the manpower directorate presented a plan to reduce compulsory service for men to 27 months by 2023 (Locker proposed 24 months by 2020). Ya’alon vehemently opposes this plan. If he had his way, he’d also cancel a law passed by the previous government that will cut compulsory service for men from 36 to 32 months for people entering the army now.

This week, two opposing camps emerged among both the media and its interviewees. One camp decried corrupt tax militias and inflated pensions for career officers. The other warned that the first camp would cause a brain drain from the army that would result in a security disaster.

But the Locker report made one thing crystal-clear: The current system for drafting the defense budget is flawed. The IDF needs more long-term planning, less concealment and more transparency.

Some of the committee’s proposed solutions indeed require more discussion and should probably be amended. For instance, slashing compulsory service for men to two years by 2020 would have far-reaching effects on combat units, as well as on training for both combatants and technological specialists. Even MK Ofer Shelah (Yesh Atid), who has been demanding shorter compulsory service for years, thinks Locker went too far.

The most controversial proposal of all – denying “bridge pensions” to most career officers – probably wouldn’t even survive a challenge in the High Court of Justice. And it would certainly engender massive discrimination unless similar reforms were implemented in other defense agencies, where officers can also retire at relatively young ages and receive bridge pensions from the defense budget until they are old enough to qualify for regular pensions.

Ya’alon and his staff are currently focusing most of their fire on the bridge pension issue.

“A tsunami is beginning among career officers, and most of the public isn’t yet aware of it,” one senior defense official said yesterday. “The committee is behaving like a court that issues a sentence but doesn’t explain it. If someone wanted to destroy the career army, he evidently found the way to do it.”

When this is how people feel, the battle over implementing the Locker report becomes a zero-sum game. The concerns voiced by Ya’alon, Eisenkot and other senior IDF officers are real, but it’s impossible to ignore the fact that there’s also a power struggle involved. The officers aren’t used to having civilians looking over their shoulders, especially not with regard to day-to-day management of the defense budget. And they don’t intend to start now.

Every conversation with senior defense officials over the last week has begun with specific arguments, but quickly shifted to the subtext: The military believes in principle that it’s subordinate to the civilian government. But its subordination apparently goes only so far.