A Question for Israel's Army to Answer

Why is the IDF canvassing the Israeli public for its views on Operation Protective Edge? Blame the army’s department of behavioral sciences for some questionable behavior.

Amir Oren
Amir Oren
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Israeli soldiers ride a tank after returning to Israel from Gaza August 3, 2014.
Israeli soldiers ride a tank after returning to Israel from Gaza August 3, 2014.Credit: Reuters
Amir Oren
Amir Oren

If a military junta decided to stage a takeover in Israel, it would not have to send tanks to the broadcasting studios, as is the norm in our region. The Israel Defense Forces is already there, in the form of “directives of the Home Front Command” – which are requirements, not recommendations.

The public is so obedient that an announcement of a curfew and instructions to drop and give 20 pushups would be accepted without question. A siren sounded to keep citizens in their homes to assist the General Staff to take over the country would certainly be accepted en masse.

The IDF is not zealous about respecting the lines that divide the civilian and the military. The Home Front Command has a “population behavior department.” Through this crack, from time to time the attitude of civilians is checked toward the regime’s institutions – the army itself, as well as government ministries and municipalities. It is unclear what business the army has in collecting data on how civilian institutions are perceived. If the Interior Ministry or local government fails in the eyes of citizens, will the army act to replace them?

Because the state has yet to implement the preliminary decision to move the Home Front Command from the army to the police or a civilian ministry, the army still has, just, a reason to deal with panic-stricken masses. That is not the case for the department of behavioral sciences, the IDF’s organizational psychologist which can’t even organize itself, and whose problems were fully revealed in a sharply worded state comptroller’s report.

At some unknown point over the years, the department of behavioral sciences authorized itself to present questionnaires to civilians. The most recent was last week, asking about the level of satisfaction over the management of Operation Protective Edge, its achievements and costs.

Women soldiers in conscript service phoned a sample whose size, components and randomness are kept secret. They asked people to express their opinions on security questions that, of necessity, slip into politics – because the army relies, among other things, on the defense budget.

All the army’s activities, even the most innocent, should contribute to more efficient preparations for the next battle – or avoiding it. The purpose of the history department is to faithfully document events of the past to help learn its lessons. The behavioral sciences department’s work is similar in its own field, but can be exploited.

Before the disengagement from Gaza in 2005, IDF Chief of Staff Moshe Ya’alon commissioned a survey from the behavioral sciences department that focused on two controversial issues: whether the job of evacuating people should be given to the police or the army; and whether the evacuation contributed to security. Chiefs of staff are dismissed for less than this in properly run governments.

The results of the surveys are reported directly only to the head of the Personnel Directorate and the chief of staff, who decide whether to disseminate them to other official bodies. Ya’alon, in his political incarnation, continues to be interested in these surveys. The material is declassified and published, partially, only when the army wants to signal what type of action it wants.

For example, the level of public support for the IDF was 80 percent for disengagement from Gaza, but climbed to about 90 percent in the fighting in Lebanon and Gaza. Last week, when an enraged citizen protested that the IDF was asking him political questions about Operation Protective Edge, and the IDF was asked to confirm or deny such a poll, the creative response was: “The behavioral sciences department polls the public by phone in times of emergency on issues of how the public deals with the various security situations.”

As if the very scandal of holding such an opinion poll was not enough, there is its hasty timing, during the cease-fire that ended Friday. It is very possible that in the meantime, before the findings were tallied, respondents changed their minds, and more positively, about the military command and its political leadership. It will be interesting to see whether more military money will now be spent on a repeat survey.

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