Commanders, Start Commanding

We can only hope the judicial issues will not distract the military from other matters.

Looking back, the newspaper headlines regarding the high command's concerns in early summer 2009 might seem bewildering. There are plenty of noteworthy topics: Brig. Gen. Moshe (Chico) Tamir's ATV incident, the indictment against Lt. Col. Omri Borberg following the shooting of a bound detainee in Na'alin, the statement by the Kfir Brigade's commander in favor of "a slap or a knee" when detaining suspects in the West Bank, the chief military rabbi's statement about women serving, and the competition to become deputy chief of staff. Still, it seems these events are only being covered because of our relatively quiet borders and the Palestinian security forces' effectiveness in forestalling terror attacks in the West Bank.

A provocation by Hezbollah on the northern border, a new conflagration in the Gaza Strip, a sudden Iranian announcement of a leap in its nuclear program - all these hypothetical developments can instantly create an entirely new security agenda and sideline the above-mentioned issues. And we must remember that Gilad Shalit's abduction and the one that sparked the Second Lebanon War were not preceded by many warning signs. We can only hope the judicial issues will not distract the military from other matters.

What the Tamir, Kfir Brigade and Na'alin cases have in common is the tension between senior command's duty to take disciplinary action against officers and the need to back those officers, who bear the brunt of combat missions at great personal risk. All three cases have provoked harsh criticism of the Israel Defense Forces from both the public and legal figures. It seems two lessons can be draw even before the three cases are brought to a close.

The first is that, at least in some cases, quick action by a suspect's immediate commander is preferable to criminal procedures. Tamir's case was not handled by his immediate commander; the earliest treatment came from a superficial and fragmented investigation by the IDF's Criminal Investigation Division. Borberg, in charge at Na'alin, was removed from his post but not from service. He was eventually indicted on a criminal charge, but a very light one - "conduct unbecoming an officer." Effective handling of a situation by the immediate commander is not a magic solution to anything, but fobbing off the case on the prosecutors increases the chance that the process will be lengthened, complicated and criticized. Giving a commanding officer the authority to act on the case will be useful, even if it won't prevent the next appeal to the Supreme Court by left-wing organizations.

The second lesson concerns the role of the military advocate general, Brig. Gen. Avichai Mendelblit. Mendelblit had been working hard over the last two years to become a major general; the fallout from the Na'alin and Tamir cases makes this promotion unlikely. Have Mendelblit's decisions been influenced by his desire to reach a higher rank? It's hard to say. At any rate, the pressures and expectations have led him to make decisions that could not be upheld by the Supreme Court.

What is clear, however, is that the present state is difficult enough - in which both the military advocate general's appointment and the allocation of resources to him hinge on the chief of staff. The dependency on promotion casts another unnecessary shadow on decision making by the military advocate general. But this conundrum at least has a clear solution: Setting up an external committee to play a role in the appointment of the military advocate general, and giving that person a fixed rank such as brigadier or major general.