The Israeli Army's New War: Ensuring It Has Enough Quality Combat Troops

The IDF knows that with Hamas or Hezbollah firing rockets at civilians, the army will have to take the battle to the enemy. But will the IDF have the right stuff to do so?

Soldiers practicing hand-to-hand combat in the Golan Heights, March 2017.
Reuters / Nir Elias

Israel’s 69th Independence Day once again is passing with fairly low-level military friction compared with the situation in the region. The enormous shake-up in the Arab world obviously has strategic implications for Israel, but a generally sensible defense policy has prevented a slide into a major military conflict.

The fears of war voiced a year ago, when Avigdor Lieberman entered the Defense Ministry, have eased now that his threats against the life of Ismail Haniyeh, Hamas’ leader in Gaza, remain unfulfilled. (Lieberman chose to usher in this year’s Independence Day with a rhetorical clash with North Korea.)

Over the past year, the mini-intifada of stabbings and car-rammings that erupted in October 2015 in the West Bank, Jerusalem and elsewhere eased. For now, Hezbollah also looks like it prefers to avoid a military clash in Lebanon.

Instead, the most immediate dangers of the past few weeks have emerged on other fronts. One is the exchange of threats between Israel on the one hand, and Syria and Iran on the other against the background of Israel’s warning that it won’t consent to any presence by Hezbollah or Iran’s Revolutionary Guard on the Syrian part of the Golan Heights. The other is the tension between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas over who rules Gaza, which could spill across the border into Israel.

The army must prepare for all these possible threats, and must therefore maintain diverse skills. But the encounter between the Israel Defense Forces and Israeli society remains sensitive from many standpoints. The past few months alone have seen a storm over the trial of soldier Elor Azaria, a significant expansion of women’s integration into combat units and a subsequent dispute between the army and leading rabbis over the mixed-gender service order. There have also been homophobic outbursts and attacks on female combat soldiers by Rabbi Yigal Levinstein, and concern within the army over a decline in the quality of combat soldiers.

Brig. Gen. Eran Niv is well placed to speak about all this. For the last two and a half years he has headed the ground forces’ manpower department. This summer he’ll return to the field as commander of the IDF forces in the West Bank.

Haaretz rarely publishes interviews with senior officers. First, there’s already a plethora of such interviews in the Israeli media. Second, the interviewees are often so wary of creating a political storm and so concerned with representing the army that it’s hard to extract anything meaningful from them.

But Niv is a bit different. Over the past 20 years he has been on the front lines almost everywhere the IDF has fought. Over the years I discovered that visits to him in his various posts provided an interesting perspective on the changes the army was undergoing.

Niv, 46, is from Kibbutz Erez on the Gaza border and has done most of his service in the Nahal Brigade. He was a company commander during the years Israel maintained a security zone in southern Lebanon (1985-2000), and in articles from that period both Nahum Barnea of Yedioth Ahronoth and Avichai Becker of Haaretz often quote “Maj. Eran, commander of the Pumpkin outpost.”

But he hasn’t yet read “Pumpkinflowers,” the excellent book on that period by Matti Friedman, who served under him in Nahal’s engineering corps. “Perhaps it’s too charged for me,” he said.

Brig. Gen. Eran Niv, April 2017.
Tomer Appelbaum

In 2002, while he was a battalion commander in Nahal, a group of terrorists barricaded themselves in Hebron’s Worshippers’ Way and killed 12 members of the security forces in a drawn-out firefight, including Col. Dror Weinberg, commander of the Hebron Brigade. Niv led the force that eventually overcame the terrorists. Later, he headed a territorial brigade in the West Bank, as commander of the paratroopers’ reserve brigade and head of the Officer Candidate School.

Niv said the starting point for all planning in the ground forces is to restore the status of maneuvers – a reference to the importance the IDF, especially under Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot, once again attaches to moving ground forces deep into enemy territory during wartime.

“Five years ago there was a discussion over the relationship between maneuvers and firing from a distance. Was it even necessary to maneuver in the battlefield anymore? Today this isn’t even a question. It’s crystal clear. The IDF’s agenda is that maneuvers will decide the next war,” Niv said.

“To the ground forces, this is clear and unequivocal. So we want the units that are supposed to secure the victory to do more training. The idea is to return to a model where the time spent training is equal to the time spent in operational activity, 17 weeks each, as was the case until the second intifada,” which erupted in 2000.

“The main need is to prepare the army for its operative mission. We understand that, faced with a dispersed, hidden enemy firing at the home front, we have to maneuver in his territory,” Niv added, referring to organizations like Hamas and Hezbollah. “This requires vast resources and great efforts, but there’s no substitute for it.”

Shorter service

Niv’s biggest headache lately stems from the decision, made with the support of the General Staff, to cut mandatory military service for men to 32 from 36 months.

“I didn’t sleep at night for several months over this,” he said. “Under the amendment to the law, the cohorts that enlisted in March and July 2015 will be demobilized together in March 2018. That means every combat battalion will lose 100 people at once. The battalion will drop from seven enlistment cohorts to six,” Niv said.

“It’s as if one pipe out of seven stopped filling the pool, so you have to increase the pressure on the other pipes. This means ensuring that every draft cohort is larger. But I think we’ve taken care of this. Our units will be okay. I’ve gone back to sleeping at night.”

The solution has several elements. First, enlistment cohorts are starting to grow again, thanks to rising birthrates in the late ‘90s.

“We’ll be getting more soldiers. We’ll have to expand the training bases for them, set up additional bases and streamline training. But we’ve become more efficient in the way we assign fighters to units,” Niv said.

“Currently, we have to reduce the dropout rate even further. Today, about 12 percent of combat soldiers drop out by the end of training. That’s still too much,” he said about training that lasts from eight months to a year.

Soldiers training on the beach at Ashdod, 2015.
Ilan Assayag

“One step we’ve taken was a switch to organic platoons. Anyone who doesn’t go to a commanders’ course moves on with his comrades in the platoon to a veteran company and then joins them for reserve duty. The social support their platoon comrades provide helps people remain in combat positions despite the burnout these positions entail.”

In a recent conversation with Haaretz, two company commanders from regular infantry units raised questions about the IDF’s ability to continue attracting high-quality recruits to combat units. “Today, combatants get more support from the army from economic assistance for those who need it to funding for a bachelor’s degree once they’re demobilized. But that’s not the whole story,” Niv responded.

“Anyone who serves in a combat unit understands what he gets from it: the best friends, a support system, the experiences you’ve undergone. These things are priceless. So in the infantry brigades with the hardest training, there’s still a 100 percent desire for combat service among the draftees,” he added.

“There’s a kind of charm in it that rests to a large degree on the commanders’ shoulders. The charm lies in the small, company framework. There’s a network of relationships created within the unit, and if the values are right, people will want to be there. It all begins at Bahad 1,” the basic-training base.

“This is the Archimedean point: As long as we get the highest-quality fighters into the officers’ corps, it’ll be okay. The junior officers must know how to talk with the soldiers and maintain the tension between concern for the individual and fulfilling the mission.”

Niv acknowledged that the young men the army drafts today are different from the ones he led as a company commander two decades ago. “There’s a change in the soldiers, and we’re aware of these changes. We were spoken to only in orders: Go there, go here. Today the soldier wants dialogue,” he said.

“I think that overall, the fighters are intelligent and have high motivation. But they’re very clear about what they want. The fact that there’s a compulsory draft doesn’t mean we don’t have to be as attractive as possible,” he added.

“The soldier must understand that he’s doing something meaningful, something that makes a contribution not wasting his time. I want him to have a challenge that he must invest all his energy in to meet and to build an environment that he’ll want to belong to.”

In January, Haaretz reported the findings of an internal study that has been worrying the top brass. Quality young men are moving from combat units to intelligence and technology units – which are not only risk-free but also provide a convenient springboard to civilian life.

“This is definitely a threat to the IDF, and effectively, to Israeli society as a whole. If the IDF doesn’t retain the service ethos – everyone joins and everyone goes into the hard jobs – bad things will happen to us,” Niv said.

“We’re very aware of this. It’s completely clear to us that the best people must go into the ground forces. We must be heterogeneous even in the hardest jobs. If a solider is suited for demanding service, he must go there,” Niv added.

“Both the head of Military Intelligence and the head of C4I [the Teleprocessing Corps] would agree with me: If there’s a soldier who’s a cyber whiz but also suited to be a platoon commander in the paratroopers or the Givati Brigade, he should join the infantry. I need the best in the paratroopers.”

The fit for the ground forces

The ground forces also use more and more technological capabilities, Niv noted. The commander of a Merkava Mark 4 tank operates dozens of computerized systems. He needs capabilities not far from those of a combat helicopter pilot.

“The cyber corps will manage. We’re willing to make an exception for, let’s say, the top thousandth of the talented recruits,” he said. “If there are 15 or 20 people a year who are cyber geniuses and some don’t have the medical profile for combat service, let them go to the cyber corps. But the rest should go to the ground forces.”

Asked whether he thinks the societal changes Israel has undergone included a reduced willingness to accept casualties, Niv replied, “We have a kind of unwritten contract with Israeli society. Society must understand that there are no instant wars. There will always be casualties in combat.

“Still, we must know we have an obligation to use every means possible to protect our soldiers’ lives, both technological means and operational smarts. You have to know where you’re going and what preparatory fire will be used before you send in soldiers. You have to avoid getting into corners you can’t get out of.”

Asked about commanders who in the 2008-09 Gaza war spoke of a kind of unwritten law that guided the troops zero casualties for our forces Niv replied, “There’s no such thing. It’s immoral. You won’t achieve anything that way. David Ben-Gurion spoke of heroism, intelligence and purity of arms. That’s the right compass in today’s fighting as well.”

As Niv put it, “Incidentally, if you act intelligently, you’ll need fewer acts of heroism. When you’re more professional, when you train and prepare the fighter as you should, there will be fewer casualties. But if we aren’t ethical in combat, we won’t succeed. If the fighting is morally rotten, it won’t hold water. We’ll fall apart.”

Giving priority to frontline units in the ground forces will require absorbing more soldiers from segments of society that haven’t gone into combat units in the past. Expanding the number of women in combat service, mainly in border security units, has been part of the solution.

“We’ve reached an impressive breakthrough,” Niv said. “We’ve risen from one mixed-gender battalion to four. But the IDF isn’t a feminist organization, it’s a state organ. The steps we took were designed to let us accomplish our mission.”

He doesn’t foresee women becoming combat soldiers in infantry and armored brigades in the next few years, but he does expect them to join combat support units.

At the same time, the number of ultra-Orthodox combat soldiers has increased (even if the army uses a rather flexible definition of who qualifies as ultra-Orthodox). Aside from Netzah Yehuda, an ultra-Orthodox battalion part of the Nahal Brigade, there’s now an ultra-Orthodox company in the Givati Brigade, and the army recently launched an ultra-Orthodox company in the paratroopers.

Niv believes the basis of this process is trust. “Ultra-Orthodox soldiers must trust us not to make any of them nonreligious,” he said. “We have no such agenda. I’ll make every effort to let a combatant remain ultra-Orthodox, but more connected to the state and better prepared to integrate into the job market when he’s demobilized.”

Six years ago, when Niv headed the Officer Candidate School, a storm erupted over a group of religious cadets who walked out of a military ceremony without permission because it included women singing. Niv said such incidents “are never justifications for disobeying an order,” as disobedience is justified “only over an immoral action that violates human life.”

“Discipline is a sacred value. Without it there’s no army. If a commander thinks some of his men won’t obey his orders, there’s no military framework,” he said.

“We’ll try to act in such a way that religious or ultra-Orthodox soldiers won’t be backed into corners. But if it still happens, we’ll tell them, ‘Take a deep breath and obey the order. We’ll learn lessons afterward.’”