Who's Running the Army?

Fiction is not too far from reality in the Israeli-Palestinian arena. Only one of the sides is committed to publishing the truth.

The Arab Press news agency announced last night that three rockets landed yesterday afternoon in the yard of the Islamic college Al-Sapir in the town of Bab-al-Shimali in the Gaza Strip.

The students, who were gathered for prayer at the time, were not injured, but demonstrated and promised revenge. The British university union responded immediately, declaring a boycott on Israel. Now it transpires that the report was slightly erroneous. The three rockets struck the Sapir College in Sha'ar Hanegev. But the boycott is still on, until the end of the occupation in Gaza.

This fiction is not too far from the reality in the Israeli-Palestinian arena. Only one of the sides is committed to publishing the truth, both at home and abroad. For the Palestinians, the story is a weapon that enables the weak to even the score with the strong. The benefit obtained is more important than the evidence. An act of "asymmetric warfare," American admiral Harry Harris called the suicide of three inmates at the Guantanamo detention camp, coincidentally on the day after the Gaza beach shelling.

In its first 40 years of existence, despite the sanctimonious protests of its leaders, Israel did the same. The security agencies deceived the government and, with or without its help, went on to deceive the courts and the public. They postured, invented and bluffed to portray a fraudulent enemy, to accelerate victory, to save soldiers' lives and to bolster their own careers.

This practice has not ended. The Israel Defense Forces has a psychological warfare - sorry, consciousness-molding - department that wanders about among the operations and intelligence units. But today, the lies are exposed and denounced faster than ever before. A new, more skeptical generation in the prosecution and courts has helped to weaken the censorship and force the defense establishment to be more truthful. It is hard to deceive the likes of Aharon Barak (a former attorney general and member of the Kahan Commission), Mishael Cheshin (a former attorney for the Shin Bet security service officials who exposed the Bus 300 affair), Dorit Beinisch (a former Kahan Commission staffer, also well-versed in Irangate and suspects' deaths in Shin Bet interrogations) and Edna Arbel (a former Kahan Commission staffer). They do not spring to attention for some officer passing by to whisper some secret.

Justices Barak and Beinisch, along with Ayala Procaccia, issued last week's High Court of Justice ruling about the fence around Tzofin. After such a harsh decision, it is not clear how certain senior government and defense officials can remain in office. These officials presented the High Court with false information in 2002 and 2005, wasting millions on a fence route that the court ruled must be altered. They are just as responsible for the scandal as the police commissioner in the context of the Zeiler Commission, or the Nevatim base commander for soldiers' rape of a teenage girl living on the base.

In the IDF, including the air force (see the Rami Dotan affair), there are isolated cases of fraud, but there is no systematic double bookkeeping - one record for the "system" and another for everyone else. Chief of Staff Dan Halutz tells Defense Minister Amir Peretz what he hears from Yoav Galant, who tells him what he hears from Aviv Kochavi. To the public, the army is more credible than the media or the politicians.

The defense minister's problem is not the chief of staff's credibility, but the fact that he is the exclusive source of information about Israeli forces. As for the enemy, Military Intelligence, the Shin Bet and the Mossad brief the defense minister, prime minister and, to a certain extent, the foreign minister. There is no real civilian control over the army, there is no independent system that reports to the minister. The Basic Law on the Army places the chief of staff under the defense minister, who nominates this appointee to the cabinet. But the chief of staff is authorized to intercede between IDF officers and elected officials.

In the present system, the signature of the defense minister is required, but his ability to bring about a decision contrary to the chief of staff's proposal, with regard to either appointments or budgets, is extremely limited.

The army is running (and duplicating) itself. If Peretz does not take the time to institute a fundamental change, the challenge will await a future minister who volunteers to do so. Halutz, for example.