The Israel Defense Forces on Tuesday sent eight high-ranking career army and reserve duty officers to a press conference to present the conclusions from two reports on the combat readiness of ground forces. But in the conference room at the headquarters of an elite division in the center of the country, there primarily hovered the spirit of a ninth officer who wasn’t there, IDF Ombudsman Maj. Gen. (res.) Yitzhak Brik. It was Brik who had raised the public storm about the army’s preparedness in a series of reports issued over the past several months.
After hesitation and prolonged deliberations, Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot appointed two committees to examine Brik’s claims. One, headed by IDF Comptroller Brig. Gen. (res.) Ilan Harari, examined the state of readiness of various divisions. The other, headed by retired majors general Avi Mizrahi and Doron Almog, focused on the condition of the ground forces. The reports focused on lapses in the army’s combat readiness (which Brik had scathingly criticized), faults in the army’s personnel policy and problems in the IDF’s organizational culture. The panels’ conclusions conflict with Brik’s opinions and state that the army is properly prepared for war, although there were some specific gaps identified.
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How tense the argument is, stemming as it does from historic traumas from the 1973 Yom Kippur War, and the degree that it reflects on Eisenkot’s reputation as he ends his term as chief of staff, was evident in the exchanges toward the end of the meeting.
One experienced reporter asked the officers why they thought the army had such an emotional reaction to Brik’s criticism and why the public is so doubtful about the IDF’s stance. Mizrahi reacted with an emotional outburst, as if to confirm the claim made in the question.
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“There is a chasm between what Brik says and what I’m saying,” he stressed. “There are a lot of problems in Israeli society. There were always gaps in the army. I’m also a general and I’m sorry if I was born too late to serve in 1973. But Brik is mistaken, even if he has a medal of honor from that war. That’s my truth and I believe it. I wouldn’t lie to myself. Brik isn’t the Dutch boy standing with his finger in the dike. Our chief of staff doesn’t deserve this. I’m speaking from the depths of my heart.”
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It was a defining moment in a lengthy briefing in which the army unwittingly blurred the separation between the examiners and the examined by seating the heads of the investigation committees and the senior officers and division heads together before the journalists. Brik himself contributed to this when he refused to meet with Mizrahi and Almog and even sent letters questioning their objectivity. The offended Mizrahi attached a personal letter to Eisenkot to the report he submitted in which he protested Brik’s accusations.
Harari, whose people spent a month and a half examining five divisions and the training base at Tze’elim, announced that he had found “a significant improvement in preparedness and readiness for war,” most of which had taken place in the years since Operation Protective Edge in 2014. The Mizrahi-Almog committee backed this conclusion and was convinced, after speaking with reserve battalion commanders, that the units are prepared for war. With that, there were some problems identified, relating, inter alia, to the state of the IDF’s truck fleet (which would slow down deployment during war), the pace of procuring tanks and advanced armored personnel carriers, the level of the army’s inventories in specific areas and difficulties in getting quality officers to join the standing army other than in combat units.
Mizrahi and Harari believe that the ground forces need budgetary stability for the coming decade. There was also an unusual idea raised — setting an external budget (referred to as a “box”), from which 10 billion shekels ($2.65 billion) would be funneled to upgrade the ground forces over the next five years. How might this be achieved given the deterioration in the country’s health services, educational gaps and the sense that a global financial crisis is looming? The army isn’t explaining for now.
The ground forces dream of a “land-based F-35,” the acquisition of lethal armored vehicles with a high level of defenses that can communicate with each other using systems that will transmit large amounts of data in all directions, such as to the air force. As veteran ground forces officers, Mizrachi and Harari stressed the importance of ground maneuvers in reaching a decisive result should there be war with Hezbollah. Eisenkot, Mizrahi said, “Understands this. But we have to convince the level above the general staff.”
This is where the army has a problem. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (in his recently assumed post as defense minister) has presented his vision of the IDF in 2030. In the first five clauses describing his priorities, the ground forces aren’t even mentioned. Netanyahu is busy with technology, cyberwarfare and precision fire. One can certainly understand the political echelon’s aversion to ground warfare, which by nature is more complex and liable to cause the most casualties. This, as is already known, is also a surefire recipe for disputes over decision making and performance in any war.
The officers who spoke to the journalists disagreed with Brik’s arguments, pointed out areas that nevertheless require attention and sketched out how they believe the IDF should invest in the coming decade. But looking beyond the deficiencies Brik pointed out, the larger question is the priorities for IDF investment. And here, at least for the moment, the person who makes this decision does not see eye to eye with the army.
On Thursday the committee members will present their conclusions to Netanyahu. This week the security cabinet was supposed to visit a ground forces base in the Golan Heights to hear about its situation. That visit was postponed, apparently due to the decision to call early elections.