Opinion |

Lying as a Strategic Asset

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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Students carry a mock coffin as they hold a symbolic funeral for slain Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, at al-Azhar University in Mughraqa, in the Gaza Strip.
Students carry a mock coffin as they hold a symbolic funeral for slain Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, at al-Azhar University in Mughraqa, in the Gaza Strip.Credit: Adel Hana /AP
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

As if boring into a septic wound that releases a noxious odor, Yaniv Kubovich (Haaretz, Monday) portrayed a horrifying picture of the lies of the Israel Defense Forces spokesman.

From the killing of journalist Shireen Abu Akleh to the murder of 80-year-old Abdelmajeed As’ad by soldiers of the Netzah Yehuda Battalion, to the bombing of the Sawarka family’s hut in Gaza where eight family members, including five children, were killed – and those are just a few of the chilling stories described.

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Add to this hundreds, maybe thousands of other incidents in which innocent Palestinians were killed or injured in the decades of the occupation, yet the circumstances were described coolly, usually falsely, as “The IDF acts according to procedure,” in rare cases as “The IDF is checking and investigating.” In none of these cases is the response “The IDF apologizes.”

These are not extraordinary incidents or mistakes that can be fixed by “sharpening procedures” or changing the rules of engagement. This is a deeply rooted culture of lies, which has become so legitimized that is has become an inseparable part of “IDF values.” In a sharply worded article published on the website Mida in February, Maj. Gen. (res.) Yitzhak Brik wrote: “Soldiers, non-commissioned officers, officers and commanders, even at the highest level, have no problem lying to the higher level, and the higher level likes it, because it doesn’t have to deal with problems it is not shown, and it can also continue to present a good picture to the level above.”

As for the investigations the IDF conducts after accidents, Brik tells of a “culture of lies, whitewashing, squaring circles, concealing information and coordinating testimonies of those involved before Military Police investigations begin. Instead of dealing with the head of the snake – the senior officers who look the other way and are directly responsible for the culture of lying – in most cases it is the low men on the totem pole who are dealt with, so as to do the minimum.” While these are sweeping statements that do a disservice to many soldiers and officers, the phenomenon they describe is not illusory.

The depth of the years-long culture of lying leads to one inevitable conclusion: At the top of the military apparatus is a leadership that is not only aware of the lies it disseminates, it also legitimizes them, because it sees them as an inseparable part of the war in general and of the war over consciousness in particular. But there is a vast difference between spreading lies as part of psychological warfare against the enemy, and using lies as a tool to shirk responsibility, block criticism and give support to soldiers and commanders who have done wrong. This type of lie treats the public itself as an enemy who must be “conned” so that it will continue believing in the morality of the army, the skill of its commander and the rightness of its operations.

The confidence that the army works to foster by means of the huge PR firm called the IDF Spokesperson’s Unit is of major strategic importance. Without it, there would be no way to take seriously the army’s reports on the extent of the threat to Israel and its ability to manage an independent operation against Iran and deal with Hamas and Islamic Jihad, to believe that its budgetary demands are proper, and, particularly, to trust it to protect soldiers’ lives.

But when one junior officer lies to his or her commander about the circumstances of the death of a Palestinian, and the commander helps the lie go up the ladder unhindered to the IDF chief of staff’s bureau, and when the IDF wraps the lie in a thick blanket of other lies, why should someone believe that spokesman and that chief of staff that the operation in Jenin is essential, that the attacks in Syria are always successful, and that in general, “The IDF is prepared for any scenario”?

A chief of staff who is concerned about the public’s faith in the IDF must adopt a policy of zero tolerance for lies, at any level, and this includes a refusal to employ spokesmen who consider lies to be a military asset.

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