Has the Israeli People’s Army Lost the People?

The gap between the views of the General Staff and those of the public is widening rapidly.

The rift between Netanyahu and the IDF brass runs deep, and the gap between the General Staff’s views and those of the Israeli public is rapidly widening.
Kobi Gideon/GPO

“The issue of the speech is behind us,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Monday, referring to the storm caused by Deputy Chief of Staff Yair Golan’s remarks at a Holocaust Remembrance Day ceremony. “I see this as a one-time incident. From here on, we’re all going forward together.”

Netanyahu, who was addressing the Israel Defense Forces General Staff during the traditional pre-Independence Day toast, even shook Golan’s hand and clapped him on the shoulder.

But in truth, the story is far from over. It’s impossible to understand the furor roused by Golan’s comparison between certain developments in Israeli society today and developments in Nazi Germany in the 1930s in isolation from the other storms that have hit the defense establishment’s top brass in recent months. These include  Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot’s speech explaining the rules of engagement that obligate soldiers; the trial of Elor Azaria, the soldier who killed a Palestinian in Hebron when the assailant was already wounded and prone; and right-wing attacks portraying Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon as a leftist stooge due to his public defense of the IDF’s values as he sees them.

The wave of stabbing and car-ramming attacks that began last October has accelerated the outbreak of these disputes, all of which stem from the effects of Israel’s ongoing control over the territories. But other factors also contributed: Last year’s hard-fought election campaign, which culminated in Netanyahu’s racist statement about Arabs “going to the polls in droves”; the establishment of a narrow, fragile right-wing government in which Netanyahu has little political maneuver room; and the ideological right’s deep frustration over what it sees as its inability to translate electoral victories into its desired government policies.

These serial uproars over Golan, Eisenkot, Azaria and Ya’alon, combined with Netanyahu’s responses, in which he carefully maintained his distance from the defense minister and the generals, attest to a deep and multilayered crisis of confidence. Netanyahu and Ya’alon publicly disagreed over both Azaria and Golan, with Ya’alon denouncing Azaria and backing Golan, while Netanyahu denounced Golan and made a sympathetic phone call to Azaria’s father.

The rift between Netanyahu and the IDF brass also runs deep. And the gap between the General Staff’s views and those of the Israeli public is rapidly widening, as demonstrated by several polls showing widespread public support for Azaria.

This latter fact leads to the most worrying conclusion of all: If the soldiers reflect the families they grew up in, it’s reasonable to assume that the high command also has a problem with its own soldiers.

The IDF has always prided itself on being the people’s army. But the people have been moving rightward, as the past several elections show, and this seems to have been accompanied by changing views about the limits of the use of force in dealing with Palestinian terror. Or perhaps these were always the majority’s views, but they’re now being expressed more freely, thanks to the internet and social media. Either way, the soldiers, their parents and other civilians all have firm opinions about what the IDF should do and, together, they create a critical mass whose influence the army can no longer ignore.

The IDF can no longer control what news soldiers receive; they can access the media freely via their cell phones. Nor can it limit soldiers’ communication with the outside world to one call a week from a public phone; they can communicate with parents and friends at will. Thus the military can no longer isolate soldiers from outside influences that contradict the institution’s declared values, and it’s only just starting to address the implications of this change.

For instance, Eisenkot was surprised to learn from reporters, shortly after the violence erupted last October, that the right-wing website 0404 was popular with his soldiers. He promptly asked a relative to monitor this and other similar sites and let him know what his recruits were reading. Later, he appointed an official task force to examine how the military was adapting to the age of social media.

Is a new generation of soldiers emerging for whom the IDF code of ethics, drafted at army headquarters in Tel Aviv, seems irrelevant to what’s happening in the alleys of Hebron and Nablus? The gap between written doctrine and oral interpretation is already evident in discussions of the Hannibal procedure. This procedure clearly states that soldiers should try to rescue a kidnapped comrade even if this risks his life, but may not kill him. Yet field officers repeatedly say in closed discussions that they would rather kill a soldier than let Hamas or Hezbollah take him captive.

Six weeks after the incident in Hebron, it’s doubtful that the rules of engagement, which seem so clear to the top brass, are equally clear to and accepted by soldiers in the field. Instead, many such soldiers are complaining about what they see as insufficient backing for Azaria.

Shocked by public support

Ya’alon is going through a difficult time. He was shocked by the public support for Azaria, by Netanyahu’s flip-flop on the issue (he initially condemned Azaria’s shooting of the wounded Palestinian, then hedged by calling Azaria’s father to offer sympathy,) and by the way parts of the public seem to view the IDF chain of command – from the officer who reported the shooting up to the chief of staff – as the enemy in the incident. In his view, this is a rearguard action over the values of both the IDF and Israeli society, in which the army brass isn’t getting the backing it needs from the government.

Ya’alon agreed with Golan’s controversial warning that certain trends in Israeli society are no less dangerous to Israel than the Iranian nuclear threat. But Netanyahu, far from backing Golan, joined in the condemnations against him, thereby aligning himself with far-right racists like MK Bezalel Smotrich (Habayit Hayehudi) or the soccer hooligans known as La Familia.

Eisenkot is Ya’alon’s full partner in this battle. And Eisenkot likes to cite polls showing that public faith in the IDF remains stable, with some 90 percent of Israelis expressing such faith. But over the long term, Netanyahu’s behavior and the proliferating attacks by politicians on the generals are liable to undermine the IDF’s public credibility. How much support will Eisenkot himself earn in the next poll?

The public loves the IDF because it identifies the IDF with its soldiers. But it might be less enamored of an army that it perceives as mistreating Azaria, and whose deputy chief of staff expresses himself freely on controversial issues.

Golan is an outstanding officer and a smart, decent man, but utterly devoid of political or media sense. He read his controversial remarks from a prepared text at an official ceremony and those who spoke with him after the storm erupted got the impression that he never dreamed they would spark such outrage. It’s a bit surprising that nobody else on the General Staff previewed his speech to identify potential landmines.

Both Ya’alon and Eisenkot rejected calls for Golan’s dismissal out of hand, and Ya’alon is trying to ensure that Golan doesn’t resign of his own accord. But either way, it seems the lesson has been learned. One can only imagine what instructions the IDF Spokesperson’s Office will give senior officers before future speeches or media interviews: No ethics, no politics, absolutely no historical comparisons and, for God’s sake, don’t mention the Palestinians. The occupation? From a moral standpoint, it’s a good thing.