On Monday afternoon this week, Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi devoted a large part of the weekly General Staff Forum meeting to the issue of the public’s confidence in the IDF. The background to the discussion is the growing public criticism of the army, particularly in relation to issues that in the past were considered “soft” and less critical, such as soldiers’ service conditions (medical care, transportation, food). The impression of a somewhat hostile atmosphere taking hold in segments of public opinion was heightened in the wake of two surveys by the Israel Democracy Institute. The first of them, which was reported here last November, found that the public was worried about the IDF’s attitude toward the soldiers and about its economic management. For the first time, the annual survey showed that fewer than half of Israelis support the continuation of the “people’s army” model in which there is theoretically universal conscription.
The second shoe fell on Thursday. Another annual survey by the IDI found that the level of the public’s confidence in the IDF, among Israel’s Jewish population, has fallen to 78 percent, the lowest figure in the past 13 years. (The figure among Israel’s Arab citizens is far lower, in the nature of things – 36 percent – and there, too, a minor decline was recorded.) In the survey a year ago the level of confidence stood at 81 percent. In an interim examination conducted in the middle of the year a rise was recorded, which afterward tapered off rapidly. This apparently has to do with the survey being conducted shortly after the operation in Gaza, a well-known period of patriotic fervor, which usually dissipates in short order.
Even at a relative nadir in public opinion surveys, the IDF still enjoys higher public confidence than the other state institutions. The army is ahead of the president, the Supreme Court and the police by 20 percent and more. At the bottom of the list are the Knesset and the political parties. But coming first cannot exempt the IDF from reflecting on what is happening and from the conclusions that follow. The bottom line is that the public is losing confidence, and significantly so. The army has a problem.
In part this is related to the general public malaise stemming from a never-ending pandemic, toxic political polarization and four elections within two years (of which at least the last ended with a victory). In the past two years the downward trend in confidence, in regard to all the state institutions, is particularly blatant among young people. It reflects greater skepticism and mistrust, which have increased during the coronavirus period. The IDF cannot ignore this, not least because this could affect the willingness to be drafted and the desire to go on serving in the army’s ranks.
The discussion on Monday by the major generals wasn’t completed, because in its course the first reports arrived about the crash of an air force helicopter off the Haifa shore, in which two pilots were killed. The main thrust of the investigation is to attribute the crash to an aberrant technical malfunction. Tragically, such events happen occasionally, and do not necessarily indicate a broader problem either in maintenance or in management norms. The team appointed by Air Force commander Maj. Gen. Amikam Norkin to examine the event will need to discover whether the accident points to deeper failings.
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At the end of next week, Kochavi will mark the conclusion of his third year as chief of staff. He has one final year in his term. If no additional challenge befalls him, i.e., a war, he will be remembered and gauged according to two central criteria: the way he advanced the army’s force-building ahead of a possible future war, and the relations between the IDF and Israeli society. Both channels are marked by serious disputes over principle. The more transparently and forthrightly the chief of staff treats them, while conducting an open dialogue with the personnel of the IDF and the entire public, the better.