Israel Runs Strongest Mideast Army Like a Shtetl

The IDF, it transpires, has no modus operandi for investigations, and no long-term, systematic sharing of information between units.

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Israeli soldiers checking a map as they patrol the northern Israeli-Lebanon border on December 21, 2015, in search for the remains of two Katyusha-type rockets the day after they were fired from south Lebanon into northern Israel, the army said.
Israeli soldiers check a map as they patrol the northern Israeli-Lebanon border.Credit: AFP
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

The state comptroller’s report into the defense establishment, published on Monday, reveals deep flaws in the way the Israel Defense Forces conducts internal inquiries, major gaps in intelligence training and a long list of shortcomings in fundraising for army units.

The report reflects a flawed organizational culture, characterized by constant disregard for laws, procedures and military discipline, and long-term difficulty in preserving organizational knowledge and the implementation of lessons.

IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot received wall-to-wall praise from the media during his first year. But the failings revealed in this report – prepared by the state comptroller’s security division, headed by Brig. Gen. (ret.) Yossi Beinhorn for State Comptroller Joseph Shapira – indicate that Eisenkot has much work ahead of him, including in areas that don’t have anything to do with the proper way to handle terrorists after they have been subdued.

At first glance, the report’s most infuriating chapter regards donations. The strongest army in the Middle East, which receives the biggest ministry budget, is being run like a 19th-century shtetl. There is no reason that such a well-funded organization should be swarming around wealthy Diaspora Jews, regularly violating procedures that the high command has set for itself and having direct ties between units and philanthropists – despite all the prohibitions against this.

Officials from the state comptroller’s office have published many such examples in the past, yet it’s still grating to see how the army’s resources and recruits are utilized to find favor among big donors. In contrast, not only are some of the donations never properly utilized, but the army often uses them for projects it is supposed to cover from its own enormous budget – like providing medical care to soldiers.

No less serious is the systematic appeals of units, soldiers and fighters’ parents to Israeli civil society to donate things that soldiers need because the army doesn’t know about them or cannot supply them.

The big picture here reflects inefficiency among some institutional organizations that are authorized to raise funds. For example, the Association for the Wellbeing of Israel’s Soldiers (AWIS) promises donors over the phone that every shekel they give goes to the soldiers. In practice, Beinhorn and his people found, the telemarketing company hired by AWIS raised less than 15 million shekels ($3.9 million), but received at least 44 percent of that total. With that kind of bargaining power, perhaps the natural gas tycoons should hire the firm to represent them in any new discussions with the state.

Still, these are phenomena that the defense minister, chief of staff and personnel directorate head, if they devote enough time and demonstrate sufficient determination, can uproot without much effort.

In the long term, though, the reality concerning military investigations is more worrying. The army, it transpires (yet again), has no modus operandi for investigations, and no long-term, systematic sharing of information between units, or even within them – because of the high turnover dictated by the length of compulsory service and the relatively short tenure of commanders.

The report found that many serious incidents reoccurred after a failure to implement previous lessons. Shapira and Beinhorn quote a 2011 report by Brig. Gen. Noam Tibon, who investigated a series of abductions on Israel’s borders. He found similar characteristics in all the abductions (the Har Dov abduction of three soldiers by Hezbollah in 2000; and the 2006 abductions of Gilad Shalit in the Gaza Strip, and two reserve soldiers in Zarit), without the relevant lessons ever being implemented.

This is not just some academic finding. The 2006 incidents dragged Israel into a major operation in Gaza (Summer Rains), triggered the Second Lebanon War, and ultimately led to a particularly expensive prisoner swap with Hamas (1,027 Palestinians for Shalit).

As then-Shin Bet head Yuval Diskin cautioned, the state was dragged into a strategic entanglement because of two tactical operational failures by the IDF. Tibon’s report, and the state comptroller’s report following it, raise the question of whether such incidents will necessarily be prevented in the future. Failure to implement lessons stems from the burden of tasks on the army and bureaucratic hurdles, but in many cases is often related to short organizational memory. The reality is that some of the information disappears every time an officer departs: for the younger replacement, some tragic incident under his predecessor’s watch is seen as distant history.

Similar problems arise in the section on intelligence training. Military Intelligence garnered much praise in recent years for its achievements in collecting operational intelligence, but it seems its training of new recruits is full of flaws. One astonishing statistic is that the command staff at the intelligence school is overstaffed by 58 percent, and this has been the case for over five years. It’s hard to imagine civil society behaving like this, but it’s well-known that the army is spending other people’s money – ours.

The criticism of the quality of investigations and drawing appropriate lessons is also relevant to a host of burning issues – from the way the IDF investigates the killing of Palestinians in the occupied territories (which was discussed anew after last week’s killing of a subdued assailant in Hebron), to the investigation into poor preparation for its handling of the tunnel issue before the 2014 war in Gaza.

This report by the state comptroller will have no political consequences. But his report this summer into the last war in Gaza – from the tunnels and intelligence to the decision-making processes – will. As evidenced by the constant tension along the Ya’alon-Bennett-Lieberman axis (which again resurfaced after last week’s Hebron incident), the functioning of the government and the IDF during Operation Protective Edge remains a constant source of political conflict that could be renewed with the next report.

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