Analysis |

Israeli Army Can Be Happy About Recent Poll. Israeli Democracy, Less

The annual Israeli Democracy Institute survey, which found public support for the Israeli army at a 13-year low, raised concerns of a rift between the public and the military. But some experts say the alarm is uncalled for

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
IDF soldiers at a checkpoint in the West Bank
IDF soldiers at a checkpoint in the West BankCredit: Hadas Parush
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

The annual survey of the Israel Democracy Institute, which was published last week, resonated widely because of its findings about a precipitous decline in the public’s confidence in a number of key state institutions. The IDF, which still tops the list with a positive result, was nevertheless one of the main casualties of the survey. For the first time in 13 years, less than 80 percent of the Jewish public expressed confidence in the army – 78 percent, to be precise. This number was seen as worrisome, both by the General Staff and by the media, and was taken as a warning sign that a deeper rupture is forming between the IDF and Israeli society.

Prof. Yagil Levy, from the Open University and a veteran researcher of the IDF, is more sanguine. In his view, as he told Haaretz on Thursday, “The indices of confidence in the army are not as abject as the impression people are trying to create among public opinion.” Levy notes that the report contains two indices, one compiled in June after Operation Guardian of the Walls in Gaza the month before, and the other in October, when the patriotic sentiments the operation awakened had faded and the public was in a state of prolonged coronavirus depression.

“The index’s editors refrained from committing themselves to the October survey overall, because the data for that month were exceptionally low, apparently under the influence of the poor spirits and frustration in Israel. If the official index from June is the deciding one, then the Jews’ confidence in the army was even higher than the multiyear average for 2003-2021, which was 88.4 percent among Jews. Moreover, the differences between left and right are not substantial, and 84 percent confidence among the Jewish left is a genuine accomplishment from the army’s viewpoint. Of course, the October data might turn out in the future to be more correct – Prof. Tamar Hermann from IDI estimates that the figure will stabilize at around 80 percent – but we can’t know that now. And even if it levels off at around 80 percent, it’s identical to 2020, so it can’t be said that there was a decline between the years.”

A previous IDI survey published in October found erosion in the Jewish public’s support for conscription. Levy sees only a decrease that was not especially acute, which he attributes to social issues which are not in the army’s control, such as the non-conscription of Haredim. In his view, the dissatisfaction with the IDF’s performance in economic matters is also limited, taking into account the scale of the media uproar over the pension increase and the enlargement of the defense budget. “It’s minor damage, certainly not a rupture,” he said. He recalls that according to IDI’s surveys, the public’s appreciation of the IDF’s capability in the field rose a little in recent years and that the majority of the country’s Jewish citizens are supportive of the IDF’s moral comportment, even after the May operation in Gaza.

He adds, “A significant decrease was registered in the public’s evaluation of how the IDF treats the soldiers – from 43 percent approval to 25 percent – but this is not a principal index for evaluating the army’s performance, especially when it’s clear where the decline comes from and what has to be done to reverse it relatively simply. The resources and the legitimacy the army gets are influenced by the other indices, which are not worrisome, as I see the situation.

Military checkpoint in the West BankCredit: Hadas Parush

“The bottom line,” Levy continues, “is that despite the hits to its image, the army has not lost any of its status substantially. In fact, what we have here is a democratic failure. A healthy skepticism by citizens is a prior condition for democracy. A degree of lack of confidence in institutions is a democratic virtue. Confidence in the army at the level of 90 percent among the Jewish majority, and more especially at a level of 84 percent among the Jewish left, is indeed a lesson for which we need to ring the bells. But in the opposite direction from what we have seen since the index was published.”

In other words, in Levy’s eyes the IDF should be satisfied with the degree of confidence in it; Israeli democracy, less so.

Insults and ambushes

The IDF put on its insulted face this week, as usual, at the sharp report issued by the Finance Ministry’s director of salary and employment agreements over the expenditures for salaries in the defense establishment. In the past few weeks, following the furor over the arrangement that was worked out over the chief of staff’s increments for pensions, a new procedure of strategic dialogue began between the army and the treasury. Six meetings were held before the media reported about the new channel of communication – and anger flared up in the General Staff over the ambush laid by the treasury in the form of the report’s publication.

With the exception of the precise data, most of the information that appears in the report is known to readers. IDF officers retire and receive a pension far earlier than the vast majority of civil servants and also receive a higher pension. The situation of the recipients of noncontributory pensions among them (by now a relatively small minority) is even better. The report also emphasizes the gap between generation A and generation B officers in the army: There is a huge seniority increment in the IDF, producing vast salary disparities between generals and captains or majors.

Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi near Gaza in JulyCredit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz

Professionals in uniform, especially lawyers and economists, enjoy higher benefits than other civil servants. This time the treasury added to the report a comparison with other armies, which shows that veteran career personnel in the IDF are benefiting from a sharp rise in salary, in contrast to their counterparts abroad. The army is complaining that the comparison to Western armies isn’t fair: the mission load and the dangers in Israel are immeasurably greater.

The report is dead-on about some of the problems related to the salary structure in the career army. The question of how the seniority increment is calculated is crucial. The IDF replies that it doesn’t depend on them and that it’s a mechanism comparable to an automatic pilot, with the state deciding the cumulative salary rise. There is also anger at what the army describes as a calculated attempt by the treasury to drive a wedge between the young career people and the senior personnel at the top of the pyramid. That is the case primarily in regard to the pensions, with the treasury playing up the dissonance between the rising salary of the senior level and the inadequate salaries of the junior and young levels.

In the background is the dispute over the pensions. Last summer Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi led a successful surprise assault in which he recruited the prime minister and the ministers of defense, finance and foreign affairs to approve the chief of staff’s increments for pensions. (Kochavi maintains that this reduces the expenditure on pensions; the treasury says it’s just the reverse.) Finance Minister Avigdor Lieberman imposed the new system on his senior officials, who were compartmentalized and afterward were critical of the decision. Lieberman, as Haaretz reported at the time, then initiated a unilateral move of his own as compensation, when he dragged the defense establishment into a joint declaration of a steep hike in the salary of the conscripts, giving them less than a day’s notice of what he was doing.

The army suspects that the treasury is not making do with this, and that along with attempts to reduce the chief of staff’s increment it has a more ambitious goal: to separate pension terms of combat personnel from that of other officers, who will lose the right to receive a bridging pension when they retire at age 42. Even so, it’s claimed by the army, only one in 11 career personnel will reach the age in their service at which they will receive a pension.

The reckoning

That is not the only battle which the IDF fears it will lose. The chief of staff is very much disturbed by the episode of the dismissal of the Military Police officer, mentioned above. Kochavi didn’t like the intervention of civilian courts in the army’s handling of the suicide of a Givati Brigade soldier, Nir Lubaton.He killed himself in the wake of appalling treatment he received from Military Police intelligence coordinators, who tried to recruit him as an agent and compel him to inform on his buddies in the unit who used drugs. The chief of staff approved the decision by the former head of the Manpower Directorate, Maj. Gen. Moti Almoz, to dismiss the commander of the Military Police base in Be’er Sheva, Maj. Gilad Franco, on the grounds that he bore command responsibility for the failures.

A District Court accepted Franco’s appeal to cancel the decision, agreeing with his lawyer, Shlomo Tzipori, that no connection had been found between Franco’s actions and the soldier’s death. At Kochavi’s instruction, the office of the military advocate general appealed the decision to the Supreme Court. The message, which got a lot of play in the press, was that judges must not intervene in the decisions of the chief of staff – the army has only one commander.

IDF soldiers patrol along the Gaza security fenceCredit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz

It’s an infuriating case – the behavior of the intelligence personnel was disgraceful, and Lubaton’s death was tragic and unnecessary, no less than those killed in the shooting incident on Wednesday. Cases like these must not recur. But the enthusiastic framing of the dispute – as the IDF’s battle for its sovereignty to decide – ignores the lengthy judicial history of the controversy.

It was High Court justices themselves who long ago hinted to the army that they were not willing to hear appeals of career personnel over their dismissal. The IDF could have established an administrative appeals instance of its own to handle this, but preferred a problematic alternative: referral of the cases to a civilian District Court sitting as a court for administrative affairs. Thus, a decade ago a situation was created in which every decision to fire someone or void their contract could, theoretically, be brought to a civilian authority for deliberation.

Even if Kochavi is right in principle – and the appeal was indeed impressively formulated – he intervened in the case too late and will have a hard time emerging victorious. Furthermore, legal experts who are closely familiar with the case are of the opinion that the Supreme Court will not intervene and will leave the District Court’s decision as is. Kochavi, too, is familiar with this assessment. The justices already suggested that the sides compromise on a reprimand procedure instead of a dismissal, and it was Franco who rejected that. So the media campaign is assuming a different significance: more than being aimed at influencing the justices’ decision, its goal is to blur the impression of the anticipated loss in the case and to pin responsibility for the result on the court.

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