The Soldiers Charge, the Generals Quarrel

There is an almost inconceivable discrepancy between the reality of army training, such as in the recent 'War Week' exercise, and the intrigues in Defense Ministry headquarters, which have reached a new low.

While Israel and Syria exchanged threats of war and Iran took significant steps toward nuclear capability, paratroopers inducted into the Israel Defense Forces in August 2009 participated in a "War Week" exercise last week. Zayin Company marched all night in bone-chilling cold, and at 9 A.M. this past Monday, began charging hilltops as part of a "wet" - i.e., live-fire - drill, in the training area between the Lachish region and the northern Negev. When the last stage was over, the brigade commanders surprised the company commander, First Lt. Re'em, by extending the exercise with another one that involved charging the next ridge. The sweaty and exhausted fighters mustered a little more adrenaline and forged ahead, until the commanders declared it was enough. In the background, the rumble of machine guns and the whistle of snipers' bullets could be heard. A Haaretz photographer, on the forward line, reported accurate hits.

The rain that started falling in the region about two weeks ago transformed this area virtually overnight from hot and arid to lush and blooming. The hills on which the paratroopers ran were covered with red anemones, as if out of an illustration for an article in Bamahaneh, the IDF magazine. The hills are no longer given names like Rina and Dina, after the officers' girlfriends. Landmarks in the training areas now commemorate company commanders in the Paratroops who were killed over the past two decades. For example, Zayin Company conquered the "Eitan targets" - named for Eitan Balhasan, the commander of a commando unit who, with two other officers, was killed in a clash with Hezbollah in the security zone in southern Lebanon in February 1999.

A week after that, Brig.-Gen. Erez Gerstein, commander of the IDF liaison unit in Lebanon, was killed. This was the incident that spurred Israel to finally withdraw from Lebanon once and for all: The day after Gerstein's death, Ehud Barak, then a candidate for prime minister, announced his intention to exit the security zone within a year of his government's appointment. From there, the way was paved for the rearming of Hezbollah, two abductions of soldiers, the Second Lebanon War in 2006, another - hastier - withdrawal, and perhaps even more of the same.

"War Week," in its present form, was developed as a result of lessons learned from the Second Lebanon War. One goal is to improve competence in areas in which the army was deemed to have fallen short - such as fighting skills, the ability to carry heavy loads for long distances and coordination between the various corps. The fighters spend an entire week in the field without returning to their relatively new and well-equipped training base. They carry all their vital equipment on their backs, equivalent to approximately 40 percent of each soldier's body weight. Once every 24 hours, the company collects supplies buried in the area in prearranged hiding places. There are no cell phones, no contact with home, and sustenance takes the form of battle rations.

In the course of the week, the paratroopers covered about 80 kilometers in the cold, rain and hail, most of it at night. During the day, between live-fire exercises, they grabbed short naps. The company combat plan changes frequently. They spent last Shabbat in the field, without prior warning, although the base commanders did set up a makeshift synagogue and an eruv (delineating areas in which objects can be carried on the Sabbath), as are required these days. The week also included a complex exercise including helicopters and tanks.

"Where, as a soldier, did I ever see such things myself - or even as a company commander?" asks training base commander Lt.-Col. Yaki Dolef. "I never saw anything like this before."

Even with all the recent innovation, many things remain the same. The soldiers are still weary, a little out of it, hoarsely repeating orders and, as always, too crowded behind the protective structures in the field - easy prey for a mortar shell if there were a real enemy here. This is the last stage in their training. Indeed, the basic training of the infantry is shorter now than in the past: It is followed by the advanced training stage, and the whole process lasts about six months. Soon the August 2009 recruits will join the 202nd Battalion and will take part in operations on the northern border. Accordingly, "War Week" was tailored to approximate combat in the north and focused primarily on a potential confrontation with Hezbollah. In general, the IDF is doing a lot of training in preparation for such a scenario, one that is both worrying and also quite likely.

It's no secret that the army has been training like crazy. Contrary to official reassuring declarations, 2010 is liable to be a year of war. The effort to impose harsh international sanctions against Iran will likely be ratcheted up in the coming weeks. The northern arena - Hezbollah and, in certain scenarios, Syria as well - could erupt as a result, as part of an Iranian diversionary tactic to blunt the effect of the sanctions, or if Hezbollah decides it wants to settle some old scores. The situation in Gaza, currently a lower priority for the General Staff, is not any more encouraging. Hamas could stage a provocation there as a ploy to extricate itself from the pressure of the Israeli-Egyptian blockade.

Lt.-Col. Dolef, who served in Operation Cast Lead as a battalion commander, knows that the previous round of fighting in Gaza won't resemble the next round in the north, especially in terms of the adversary's might. What's not yet clear is what part the ground troops will play in such a battle. It is absolutely certain the air force will be used to an unprecedented extent, but ground maneuvers take time. The General Staff is unsure whether the political echelon and the public, under heavy missile and rocket fire on the home front, will allow the army enough time for such a move, which most of the generals believe is crucial for securing Israeli deterrence.

A bit of an uproar

When the Shomriya training base was inaugurated in 2003, a fierce debate arose within the army. The paratrooper base was built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers following an Israeli withdrawal from the Jenin area (where the previous base, in Sa-Nur, stood) as part of the Wye Agreement. The construction standard was therefore much higher than the norm for IDF bases. Some officers argued that the state-of-the-art camp would produce pampered soldiers. A headline in Yedioth Ahronoth at the time quoted one new recruit who said it was "like basketball camp." Col. Aharon Haliwa, who was the first commander of the new base, and is now commander of the Paratroops Brigade, insisted that the relatively comfortable conditions would not be a problem. Paratroopers could sleep well in air-conditioned rooms and then undergo strenuous training in the nearby hills. Time has proved Haliwa right.

Dolef, the base's current commander, grew up in Jaffa. Not long ago he went to give a talk to teachers at his old high school, Ironi Zayin, as part of a joint IDF-Education Ministry project that has recently been causing a bit of an uproar. He also visited a mixed Druze-Muslim high school and was well received. The plan for Dolef and Haliwa to lecture recently at the Gymnasia Herzliya school as part of the project was rejected by its principal, which prompted Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi to remark that he was ashamed of his old high school.

As usual, a visit with the paratroopers is encouraging: a combination of high motivation (eight applicants for every available spot in the brigade), discipline, professional capability and freedom of thought and expression. It is still impressive to see, each time anew, how somewhat dazed high-school graduates are transformed into focused fighters within just a few months. This is not something to be taken lightly these days, when serving on the home front and even evading the draft no longer have the same social stigma attached that they once did.

At the same time, however, there is a large, almost inconceivable discrepancy between the reality of combat as seen on the ground and the intrigues in Defense Ministry headquarters, which reached a new low this week. There is a built-in tension in the relationship between the defense minister and the chief of staff, which occasionally bursts into the open. Indeed, the clash between Minister Barak and Chief of Staff Ashkenazi over the possibility that the latter's tenure would be extended for a fifth year was wholly predictable. Power struggles and mutual wariness are practically inevitable. Still, one can't help but wonder why, at a time when the Israeli leadership is not earning very high marks, Barak and Ashkenazi - a skilled and experienced pair - could not overcome their hostility and competition, or at least put a damper on its public expression.

When commentary normally devoted to military analysis becomes more concerned with politics and gossip, it's easy to forget that the defense minister and chief of staff are in charge of an army that may very well find itself fighting a war within the next year or two. It will be a better trained and more determined army than the confused IDF that exited Lebanon battered (but not beaten) in 2006. Nevertheless, we can only hope that the paratroopers from Zayin Company, and the rest of us, will be spared the real test of fire.