The Demotion of Credibility

What kind of example were the military appeals court judges setting for Israel's soldiers and civilians when they annulled Moshe Tamir's sentence last week, and restored him to the rank of brigadier general?

"The commander must serve as a model and as an example," said the military judges in the appeal of Moshe (Chico) Tamir, of the demotion to which a lower court had sentenced him. But what kind of example were the military appeals court judges setting for Israel's soldiers and civilians when they annulled that sentence last week, and restored Tamir to the rank of brigadier general?

The military court had found Tamir, former commander of the Israel Defense Forces Gaza Division, guilty of allowing his son, who did not have a driver's license, to operate a military vehicle and then, after he collided with another vehicle, of submitting a fabricated report on the accident to the military authorities. In it, Tamir omitted the fact that the boy had been driving, and subsequently, to avoid having to deal with insurance procedures, he paid for the damage out of his own pocket.

Tamir said in his defense that he had had to choose between the army and his son. One could argue that his duty as a father required him to teach his child a lesson in responsibility and honesty, especially given that his son was a minor and would in any event not have had to face a stiff penalty. Moreover, the teenager had not absconded with the vehicle in the dead of night. Such a hypothetical reckless act would have confronted Tamir with a tough moral test, for which it would have been easier to understand and sympathize with his conduct, even if not to condone it.

But Tamir knew full well that his son was driving; in fact, he had permitted him to do so, thereby committing an offense himself. He therefore did not have to balance between "sacrificing" his son and doing his duty by the army. No, this was a more prosaic decision: namely, of choosing between serving his own personal benefit by lying, and obeying the law, by telling the truth.

The question isn't about Tamir's responsibility as a parent, but rather about his responsibility as an IDF officer. "I take full responsibility for this," he said. But Tamir's defense counsel defined as a "scandalous demand" the possibility that he accept responsibility and pay for his actions by being demoted. This would have been the way for the army and the officer to acknowledge the gravity of his conduct. For a brigadier general, demotion is certainly no easy matter, but we all learned in the army that "if you screw up, you pay for it."

Indeed, a demotion would have been an appropriate punishment, reflecting the extent to which Tamir's deeds impinged on his credibility as an officer. In the IDF's officer training course, failing to tell the truth is the prime reason for expulsion, and the commanders make this clear to the cadets on their very first day there. Must we now assume that the importance of this requirement diminishes with seniority and tenure?

By his peers' testimony, Tamir is a highly esteemed officer with proven abilities. Nevertheless, he has failed the test of credibility. Despite the impressive rhetoric in its judgment about the importance of the IDF's values, the military court of appeals has in effect determined that after an officer has served a certain number of years, credibility is no longer key and that those who lie need not be held responsible.

The judges were right when they declared that "the moral strength of military officers is what guarantees the confidence of the nation in the IDF."

Credibility, however, has a strange nature. When it is impinged upon in one place, the stain spreads to other places. This is why maintaining credibility is so vital to the functioning of the entire system.

How will Tamir demand from his subordinates that they conform to standards that he himself has failed to maintain? How will military authorities be able to convey the gravity of a lapse in credibility to cadets in the officers course now, without their actions being perceived as a cheap exercise in sarcasm? What message is Israel expressing when the military justice system of which it is so proud relegates the value of credibility to a secondary status?

Every IDF officer can quote David Ben-Gurion's dictum: "Every [Israeli] mother can be certain that she has placed the fate of her children in the hands of commanders who are worthy of their role." But Tamir's judges would have benefited from a trip to Training Base 1, the site of the officers school, where the quote is inscribed in full, including the less well-known condition: "... if the commanders inspire confidence, love and loyalty." This constitutes a warning that the public's trust in the military is not self-evident.

In three years, Tamir's son will enlist in the army and perhaps he too will go to officers school. It may not be appropriate here to discuss what the Israeli mother should feel about the way Tamir behaved as a father, but the way he behaved as an officer is of concern to us all.

Noam Wiener is a lawyer now writing a doctorate in jurisprudence at the University of Michigan. Israeli journalist Yoav Sivan is a student at Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism. Both served as officers in the IDF.