Israel's Army Is Sacred, and Any Criticism Is Heresy

The Knesset buries investigations, the National Security Council has no bite and the media prefers heart-rending stories. Debates over the IDF’s preparedness for the next conflict remain only inside the system, if they take place at all.

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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An IDF soldier outside the Gaza Strip during Operation Protective Edge.
An IDF soldier outside the Gaza Strip during Operation Protective Edge. Credit: Ilan Assayag
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

A recent TV investigation into the deaths of seven Golani infantrymen when their armored personnel carrier was hit in Shujaiyeh, the Gaza Strip, during last summer's fighting harmed national security. That is the surprising claim of a senior Israel Defense Forces officer.

There is no doubt that the investigative report, which reconstructed the chain of decisions, many of them flawed, leading up to the destruction of the out-of-date M-113 APC, created a bit of embarrassment in the upper echelons of the army. It is also reasonable to assume that it weighed on the relations between the IDF and the families that lost their sons in the battle. But what does that have to do with damage to national security?

The officer's comment is reminiscent of other statements made during deeply controversial wars, from American generals during the Vietnam War to Israeli politicians during the first Lebanon War. But last year's war in Gaza was warmly received by the Israeli public. Except for limited criticism from the left, there was almost wall-to-all public agreement that Hamas started the war and that the massive firing of rockets from Gaza into Israel requires a harsh military response, not to mention that attack tunnels along the border need to be destroyed. So why do senior officers feel threatened by an investigative report on a specific incident?

The IDF - and even more the soldiers themselves - are very popular in Israeli society, as all the polls conducted over the past decades show. At the same time, control and supervision over the army are being weakened in a years-long, ongoing process. The vacuum should have been filled - to an extent, at least - by the media. But the media have not fulfilled this role for quite some time. The war in Gaza was a good example of the lack of effective supervision over the defense establishment. On the rare occasions that serious criticism is nevertheless aired, the military usually responds with surprise; it even takes offence.

The case of the report on the war that was buried by the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee says almost everything. The committee questioned dozens of ministers and senior officers and examined hundreds of internal documents. But it stopped its work when the early elections were called and has no intention of renewing it. There was a war? That is a matter for medal ceremonies, not in-depth investigations.

Moving on: The National Security Council was established only a few years ago, under an excellent law that grants it quite broad supervisory powers. But the council mostly does staff work for the Prime Minister - which is very comfortable for the service heads, who do not appreciate others going through their affairs. The State Comptroller’s Office, and in particular its defense branch, is filled with serious and experienced employees, who are endowed by law with considerable authority. But preparing ombudsman reports takes a long time and the fighting spirit at the highest levels of the Comptroller’s Office is not what is used to be.

By placing forgiving gatekeepers in the positions of Attorney General and State Comptroller, the Netanyahu government have weakened not only the ethical side of the system, but also the external mechanisms for supervising the defense establishment. The Knesset State Control Committee is weak and irrelevant, not even bothering to hold discussions about some of the State Comptroller’s reports - as is required by law.

What about the way the IDF investigates itself? The quality of the investigations, certainly those relating to the most recent war, are controversial. In the past two weeks, Army Radio and the Uvda TV investigative program have broadcast details of the Givati infantry brigade's investigation into the events of “Black Friday “ in Rafah. The findings in general support the investigate reporting of Haaretz on the issue, which was published here a week after the battle.

The Givati commanders admitted openly that they had made a number of mistakes, but the investigation of one central issue was limited: The policy concerning the use of heavy fire after it was realized that Lt. Hadar Goldin’s body had been abducted. The Military Advocate General, Maj. Gen. Danny Efroni, still has to decide whether to open a Military Police investigation into the deaths of dozens of Palestinians as a result. A long list of senior officers and officials, from Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon on down, have already expressed their determined opposition to the MAG’s involvement in the matter, and have also criticized the opening of other investigations.

While the Southern Command was busy dealing with an exceptionally large number of investigations, the same was not true of investigations on the level of the General Staff. This time - in contrast to the situation after the Second Lebanon War - the IDF was careful not to allow reservists to participate in the investigations. In 2006, the teams investigating the war were headed primarily by reserve generals, such as Doron Almog, Moshe Sukenik, Yoram Yair and others, who drove the military crazy by directing harsh criticism at the functioning of the IDF during the war. This time, retired senior officers were kept away from the investigations, mirroring the limited role played by reservists in the fighting itself.

The commander of the IDF’s Planning Directorate, Maj. Gen. Nimrod Sheffer, told Israel Hayom newspaper in an interview this month that the IDF needs public legitimization for its operations. Sometimes it seems that a large part of the Israeli media is willing to supply this tailwind, without doubt or question. The television report on the events in Shujaiyeh was an exception, not the rule.

The stories carried by the media for Memorial Day and Independent Day included - among many other things - a filmed visit to the submarine fleet, a report on an anti-terror training exercise in Azrieli Towers, an interview in which Givati battalion commanders were given the opportunity to praise and support their brigade commander and feature stories on a female company commander in the Home Front Command who arrests wanted Palestinians in the West Bank - filmed with her braids hanging down from her helmet.

There is of course quite a lot of truth in the claims the IDF makes against the media. A shrinking revenue pie has turned the competition between newspapers and TV channels into a battlefield, in which formerly customary agreements have been broken. A large part of the initial negotiations with the IDF over coordinating interviews and stories is conducted in an atmosphere of suspicion and threats. The soldiers of the IDF Spokesman’s Office often find themselves putting out fires - in the face of senior officers and bereaved families.

Still, the IDF usually receives a supportive platform, of the sort that most organizations in Israel would be jealous. It has a well-oiled and experience public relations machine, which has almost tripled its size in recent decades. At the same time, the position of the spokesmen has strengthened, bringing him in close proximity to the Chief of Staff. The IDF supplies the press with what it seems they - as well as the public - want: An endless supply of heroic and emotional stories, which bring tears to the eyes.

Military reporting has also changed over the years, under the influence of reality programming in prime time television. The emotional musical background that used to adorn only pieces on mourning and remembrance is today an integral and unavoidable part of every battle report.

The real competition to the story on Golani was the finale of “Big Brother,” not another boring discussion on the size of the defense budget. There is of course a positive side to the stories of heroism and remembrance, but when such a large share of the media attention has migrated to the soft, emotional regions, a complementary process has been created to the weakening to the external supervisory bodies over the defense establishment.

Last week, before Independence Day, the state archive released a series of photographs taken during the IDF’s entry into wars and operations in southern Lebanon, as well as pictures taken during the withdrawals. The soldiers are smiling on their way in and smiling on their way out. But between the pictures there were mostly tears. Will it necessarily be any different the next time?

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