We Still Need a Strong Army

Bashing the army as wasteful has become trendy, but Israel still faces serious threats.

Ari Shavit
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IDF Chief of Staff Gantz oversees a military drill.Credit: IDF Spokesperson's Unit
Ari Shavit

In recent months, the Israel Defense Forces have been under heavy bombardment. The finance minister, treasury officials and journalists have been making mincemeat out of the military, describing it as piggish, disgusting and dripping with fat, as it gobbles up the meager resources of the State of Israel. The trained batsmen have been beating again and again the dead horses of senior officers’ salaries, army pensions and the wastefulness of those serving at IDF headquarters at the Kirya in Tel Aviv.

To the degree that we once worshipped security, we now attack those who keep us secure and incite against them. The IDF has become the new Public enemy No. 1, the top threat to economic prosperity and social justice.

There are three good reasons for this massive attack: The fact that for decades the IDF has been a sacred cow that has grown quite fat, the fact that in recent years some of the external threats the country faced have faded and the fact that since the summer of 2011, the public agenda has become more socioeconomic.

But there are also three bad reasons for the attack: The Israeli tendency to see the immediate (quiet) and not look beyond it, the seeming need to find someone (tycoons, Haredim, unions, those in uniform) on whom all of Israel’s ills can be blamed and shallow political populism, which leads to hasty decisions that do not deal seriously and responsibly with deeply rooted problems.

There is no doubt that the IDF must streamline, reorganize and adapt itself to the changing reality. But it also must see the challenges that lie beyond the horizon and prepare to confront them. We cannot let the relative calm we are experiencing deceive us. We cannot repeat the mistakes that were made before the Second Lebanon War.

It is true that there is no more Syrian Army to invade the Golan Heights and storm the Galilee. There is no eastern front across the Jordan River and there is no hostile Egyptian military on the outskirts of kibbutz Yad Mordechai in the south. But Iran is gaining increasing influence in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, creating a palpable Shi’ite Muslim arc in the north. Hezbollah has 100,000 rockets. Hamas is capable of hitting Tel Aviv. Under these circumstances, the notion that “the military threat has passed” is dangerous.

Such thinking led to big mistakes in the past, and it is liable to mislead us now too. When the strategic environment is unstable and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is still active, Israel needs a strong IDF, one that is prepared for war and can facilitate peace.

Israel has actually done quite a bit in recent years to reduce and streamline its complex military apparatus. During the mid-1970s the defense budget constituted 35 percent of the gross domestic product, while today it is about 4.6 percent. Surprisingly enough, the Israeli taxpayer’s outlay for defense is less than that of the American taxpayer.

This long-term trend intensified this year when the IDF did what no other public bureaucracy has done: It cut into the meat — shutting down armored brigades, abolishing artillery divisions, disbanding air squadrons and eliminating major arrays. Reservists are not training, conscripts are training less and thousands of full-time soldiers have been let go.

When the number of Israeli tanks is substantially smaller than the number of Egyptian tanks, there is no more justification for the harsh anti-military comments. Yes, there must be efficiency, transparency and oversight, but there is no place for angry attacks on our men in uniform.

The IDF is essentially a victim of its own success. Its great victory during the second intifada and the close cooperation it and the Shin Bet security service enjoy with the Palestinians have granted Israel a pretty quiet decade, which was seriously disrupted only twice — during the Second Lebanon War and Operation Cast Lead. The quiet brought prosperity and the prosperity has brought complacency, leading many people to believe that the military organization that defends us has become an anachronism.

Nothing could be further from the truth. We must absolutely not turn our backs on the soldiers and officers who have enabled us to become addicted to the illusion that we are living under our vines and fig trees, somewhere other than in the Middle East.

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