MESS Report / Without Self-criticism, the IDF Is Doomed

If some weekend newspapers are an indication, the IDF Spokesman's Office and its commander have managed to make 'Operation Sky Winds' appear to be one of the most impressive operations in the history of the IDF.

Despite criticism of Israel's PR efforts after the flotilla affair, if some weekend newspapers are an indication, the IDF Spokesman's Office and its commander have managed to make "Operation Sky Winds" appear to be one of the most impressive operations in the history of the Israel Defense Forces.

While the Netanyahu government is now poised to ease the blockade it swore was essential, and senior army officers face an international commission of inquiry, Israeli newspapers are hailing the soldiers as heroes who "fought like lions."

The Navy Seals, as Haaretz wrote the day after the operation, acted courageously and with relative restraint under conditions for which they had been insufficiently prepared. Plenty of people are happy to hide behind the soldiers' broad backs, among them the prime minister, the defense minister and the seven senior cabinet members who decided on the operation.

Naval commandos who participated in deadly March 31, 2010  raid on the Gaza-bound Mavi Marmara.
IDF Spokesman's Office

The press has been quick to absolve the command level of responsibility: the chief of staff, the navy commander and the commander of the Seals unit, Shayetet 13. The part played by the army is not inconsequential: Because of the failure of the operation, Israel is now in the throes of an international crisis.

On Friday afternoon, the staff of the army Spokesman's Office was attending a family celebration of a former senior officer in the unit. Morale was high after a rough few days. The unit's members spoke of how in March 2009 it had rescued Adm. Eliezer Marom and the entire army from a horrific imbroglio after Marom was caught at a strip club. Following a media blitz by the IDF, the press found other things to dwell on, and the admiral remained at his post.

Last week, this miracle, as people in the unit called it, repeated. The public is busy supporting Shayetet 13. Questions like why the army did not warn of complications, what is the chief of staff's position on the siege and why the commanders were so ill-prepared are apparently not very interesting.

The people who approved the operation, from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu down to the IDF officers, are entitled to their version of the truth and to their defense. I interviewed some of them last week, and I must say I have not encountered such a questionable perception of events and their implications since the meetings with division commanders after the Second Lebanon War. The brilliant and devoted commander of the Shayetet and the navy chief are praiseworthy. But to call the operation "almost perfect" is not truthful.

Over the past few days I have spoken with a number of officers in the reserves and the career army. Their consensus is high praise for the fighters and harsh criticism for the way the operation was conducted. The army and the Shayetet know that planning was faulty, that intelligence missed important details (there are signs of a shake-up at Military Intelligence ).

If the IDF whitewashes the conclusions of investigations for fear of admitting mistakes, the only person who might be punished for the current operation is Col. Eliezer Toledano, a paratroop officer completely unconnected to the flotilla. Friday, as a result of the flotilla fiasco, Norway's government withdrew its invitation to him to a conference; he was going to speak on his experiences in the Second Lebanon War.

We have no expectations from Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak, as we had none from Ehud Olmert and Amir Peretz. But things are supposed to be different in the army. If we pat ourselves on the back after every failure, how will we avoid the next one? Not only more flotillas await, but also the Iranian nuclear program and the threat of war with Hezbollah, as Ashkenazi and his generals know.

If we do not scrutinize errors, that will be bad for the army in the long run. Army Spokesman Avi Benayahu is very talented. To his commanders, he is worth his weight in gold. Yet one cannot help but have some heretical thoughts. How fateful that in 2005, Dan Halutz made the mistake of appointing Miri ("Go to Gaza" ) Regev army spokesman instead of Benayahu. While in retrospect Halutz called Regev's appointment a strategic error, had he appointed Benayahu instead, the latter may have been able to persuade the Israeli public that the Second Lebanon War was a success.

In such a case, we would have had Halutz for three more years as chief of staff, in which case some of the corrections Ashkenzi made would not have been implemented.