Earlier this week, several senior Israel Defense Forces officers met with military reporters from the Israeli media for more than five hours. The single issue to which the group devoted the most amount of time was not the Iranian nuclear program, nor was it Hezbollah’s growing arsenal of precision rockets — but rather the increasing number of complaints about the quality of the food served to Israeli soldiers.
This unusual fact can be seen as a badge of honor for the army. Israel’s security situation is currently relatively stable, thereby allowing the public, via the media, to focus on other questions. But it can also be seen as a badge of dishonor: In 2021, with a huge budget, the most advanced army in the Middle East has suddenly forgotten how to feed its troops.
The dissonance between these two extremes represents the somewhat bizarre situation in which the IDF’s chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi, finds himself on the eve of his fourth and final year on the job. On one hand, the security situation at the moment is very reasonable considering the environment in which Israel operates. The hostile countries in the region are mostly preoccupied with their own troubles. The friendlier countries are pleased to have closer ties with Israel, and the number of terrorist attacks, border incidents and casualties is declining.
On the other hand, the vacuum in the media’s agenda is being filled with complaints about daily life in the military, which in turn is eroding public confidence in the IDF and its commanders, as was reflected recently in two opinion polls from the Israel Democracy Institute.
Kochavi himself, who is usually very sharp, was slow to spot the changing trend. The chief of staff and his associates took too much time handling justified complaints that addressed not only food, but also the poor network of transportation that shuttles soldiers to their bases, inadequate medical care, apathetic treatment on the part of commanders, as well as what Maj. Gen. (res.) Itzhak Brik called a creeping culture of lies in the units.
In response, Kochavi and his associates argued that where things were truly important – when the army is put to the test operationally – the IDF scores highly, and that the Israeli public knows the difference and understands what’s more important. The media, according to this argument, has deliberately stoked the fire out of self-interest in order to boost ratings while ignoring the damage that it causes.
Now the army’s singing a different tune. In recent weeks, the IDF has embarked on an accelerated campaign to improve the food served to its troops. Even the chief of staff – a man who everyone would agree is very busy – found time to get a look at the salad cart at the IDF’s training base complex in the Negev, and he didn’t like what he saw.
Kochavi is a big fan of organizational change and improvement processes. It appears that he can be counted on – now that he fully understands how grave the situation really is – to lead a holistic effort to fix this issue. For nearly two years, military officials used the weak excuse of the ongoing COVID crisis to justify growing neglect. The time has come to put an end to it.
Unlike their parents, soldiers doing their mandatory military service today are more opinionated, aware of their rights and quick to take to social media to complain about deficiencies and injustices. They apparently also have a different perspective – based on a comparison with the quality of food in civilian life. But the public anger towards the military, which was recently expressed in a biting sketch on the Israeli television show “Eretz Nehederet,” also stems from the incongruity in conditions between those serving in the units and the top brass of the army — who are more than capable of taking care of their own needs – and those of other senior career officers.
As he sees it, Kochavi has led a necessary process of regulating the chief of staff’s bonus for officers and non-commissioned officers who leave the service with a fixed pension (and whose numbers are declining). This was a delayed response to a scathing 2016 report by the State Comptroller’s Office, the bottom line of which was support for reducing the average bonus. The political leadership, who very much need the chief of staff during periods of uncertainty in the governing coalition and due to the potential for multiple security threats, went along with him. But the criticism over the pension affair also impacted public trust in the military and the attitude toward career soldiers, and there have again been reports of hostility toward soldiers in uniform in the centers of Israeli cities (which of course is not directed toward soldiers doing their mandatory service).
The politicians, who saw the damage being done, sought to cover it up quickly by raising the salaries of soldiers doing their mandatory service, particularly those in combat positions. It was Finance Minister Avigdor Lieberman who last month presented defense officials with a fait accompli in announcing – with less than a day’s notice – that he intended to raise the pay of soldiers doing mandatory military service. Defense Minister Benny Gantz immediately stepped in line with Lieberman, and Kochavi was absent from a news conference at which the two announced the step publicly the following morning.
Questions of principle
Last week, Kochavi took a public stance on another question of principle, this time relating to the military's priorities in the jobs to which its soldiers are assigned. In a speech at a graduation ceremony for pilots that got widespread media coverage, the chief of staff made reference to an IDF poster advertising the best going into cybertechnology. He said this was a mistake. “The best,” he said, “are above all the combat soldiers. Cybertechnology has great potential and probably generates a lot of money, and the people who go there are talented, but the best are gauged above all by their readiness to contribute to the country and to risk their lives to protect other people.”
That’s an appropriate statement that carries weight, but one must not ignore the IDF’s own ongoing contribution to causing this confusion. When the top brass constantly speak about a battle starring drones, advanced computer networks and cyberattacks, it’s no wonder that the message trickles down to the youth.
For many years, the IDF has given priority to placing outstanding young people in the Intelligence Corps and the air force at the expense of the ground forces. That is openly and clearly the preference, contributing to a sense of growing marginalization among ground units. And it also hasn’t gone unnoticed among draftees. In general, it seems that the military has a lot more trouble deciphering signals from the public – and is later in doing so – than the other way around.
Part of the problem apparently stems from the IDF’s insistence on viewing operational performance as the be-all and end-all, while underplaying questions of values. There is no reason to discount operational work and the successes that it chalks up. It’s good that the IDF foils terrorist attacks, gathers additional intelligence and, according to foreign reports, also from time to time bombs a weapons convoy in the dead of night somewhere in the Syrian desert. But those successes don’t spare the generals from also drawing a clear, principled line when it comes to controversial issues, some of which are weightier than the pilot’s course vs. cybertechnology.
The IDF has given the impression for too long that it is hesitating to respond and act in areas in which the senior command might come under fire from the right wing. And on occasion, it seems that the only one dispatched on this front is the IDF spokesman. The most recent example of this came in the clashes with right-wing activists over the Homesh outpost in the West Bank following the terrorist attack in which yeshiva student Yehuda Dimentman was killed there about two weeks ago. Even when demonstrators acted violently against IDF troops, the army made do with condemnation by its spokesman.
In addition, following the violent incident, a picture surfaced of a regional brigade commander hugging Rabbi Zvi Tau near Homesh. Tau is the head of the Har Hamor Yeshiva of the Haredi Zionist stream, whose students have sometimes clashed with soldiers in the territories, while his political representatives lead the ultra-conservative and homophobic Noam faction in the Knesset. That’s a dangerous bear hug that the army should have long avoided. But it’s doubtful that this will happen.