Security and Defense: Brain power

Since the Second Lebanon War, the National Defense College has been one IDF target for transformation.

The Israeli National Defense College (NDC) doesn't look like your ordinary IDF base. It is not a base along the Gaza border where soldiers are busy dusting off jeeps and tanks ahead of their next mission; or along the Lebanese border, where the IDF is on high alert; or in the West Bank, where units return every morning from overnight arrest raids in Nablus and Jenin. At the NDC, situated right next to Military Intelligence's Training Base at the Glilot Junction just north of Tel Aviv, the base looks exactly like what it is supposed to be - a college. The lawns are green, the sun is shining and the students who can be seen carrying backpacks and laptop computers could be mistaken for middle-aged university students, if it weren't for their uniforms and the brass rank markings on their shoulders. Over the past year, the IDF has poured millions of shekels into renovating the college's dilapidated old buildings and has replaced them with new caravan-like structures filled with leather chairs, refurbished libraries and state-of-the-art classrooms. Sundecks with recliners are some of the additional perks the senior officers get to enjoy when participating in the courses offered at the college, known by its Hebrew acronym, "MABAL." Beyond the superficial changes, however, the NDC has undergone a transformation in the year and a half since the Second Lebanon War, following harsh criticism of the IDF for having neglected the training of its senior officer corps. In a report released four months after the war, State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss revealed that two officers' courses - one for management training and the other for large military campaigns - had not been held since 2003. An additional, and possibly even more surprising, revelation was that as of December 2005 - the date on which the report was compiled - 82 percent of the IDF's major-generals, 68% of its brigadier-generals and 76% of its colonels had not studied at the NDC. Upon the NDC's establishment in 1962, the government deposited the college in the hands of the IDF, with the understanding that the military was at the core of Israel's national security. IDF officers, however, are not the only ones to study at the NDC, whose students come from the Mossad, Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency), the Foreign Ministry, the Israel Police and the Israeli Atomic Energy Commission. Studies at the college are required for IDF officers to be promoted to the ranks of colonel or brigadier-general, as well as for being appointed brigade, division, flotilla and base commanders. SINCE THE war, Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi and OC Military Colleges Maj.-Gen. Gershon Hacohen have changed the format of studies at the college, added new topics and opened new courses, such as the one for division commanders, participation in which is a prerequisite for any officer who wants to become head of a division. Aside from being a former division commander in the Golan Heights and commander of Israel's disengagement from the Gaza Strip, Hacohen also has a strong academic background - he holds an MA in philosophy and comparative literature from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem - for the job he took up just before the war broke out in July 2006. The shelves in his office are lined with a diverse collection of books - Hebrew poetry, the writings of French philosopher Michel Foucault and dozens of histories of various wars, such as John W. Wheeler-Bennett's The Nemesis of Power and Cornelius Ryan's The Last Battle. Hacohen is not your average IDF general. His father, Yedaya, was one of the founders of the Har Etzion hesder yeshiva in Alon Shvut - where Hacohen studied for a year after graduating in 1973 from Netiv Meir, at the time religious Zionism's flagship high school. His three brothers are all yeshiva heads in Otniel, Hadera and Ein Tzurim. Today, Hacohen does not wear a skull cap, although has been reported to have said that he is religious and wears a "see-through kippa." Hacohen is one of the last generals in service today to have fought in the Yom Kippur War. In 1982, as a deputy battalion commander, Hacohen published an anonymous op-ed in Ha'aretz against the Lebanon War. Then-chief of staff Lt.-Gen. Rafael Eitan kicked him out of the army, but in 1987 he was brought back by then-chief of staff Lt.-Gen. Dan Shomron. At the time, IDF officers said that Hacohen was "just too talented" to be left out of the military. OFFICERS WHO meet him are astounded by his vast knowledge, which covers Greek philosophy, international relations and Jewish history. Others who know him attest that regular work meetings often turn into philosophical debates. Over the past year, Hacohen has worked on getting the IDF's various branches to send their key personnel to the NDC. The Air Force, an officer at the college said this week, is one example of a branch that has understood the importance of this. "The goal here is not to teach the past war, but to learn how to win the next war," the senior officer says. "This is - of course - not simple, since the next war is a place where no man has gone before. It just hasn't happened yet." An example that Hacohen uses in meetings with his staff is the Air Force's cadet course. "There, you can gauge success by seeing if the pilot can take off, land and fly safely," he has said. "The same cannot be said about the NDC, since there is no real way to test success." Upon taking up his current post right before the war, Hacohen decided to stop granting masters degrees to junior officers studying at the IDF's Staff and Command College, an obligatory year of study for officers on their way to the rank of lieutenant-colonel and to being appointed battalion and squadron commanders. His reasoning was that the studies, which were being conducted in conjunction with one of the country's universities, distracted the officers from their main focus - the military. Since the war, NDC students have been studying not only different military tactics, but also the diplomatic aspect of regional issues. International Relations is a mandatory course, and former ministers such as Dan Meridor come to the college as guest lecturers to explain what the government expects from the military. By analyzing historical events such as Dwight D. Eisenhower's victory of Berlin in 1945, as well as the subsequent Marshall Plan for the recovery of Europe, the students and future commanders, Hacohen believes, will walk away with a better grasp of the current conflict in Iraq. "You need to understand what is going on in the world to understand what is happening in the Gaza Strip," the senior officer at the NDC says. "Historical and diplomatic events can help shape the way you ask questions about Gaza - what will happen if I conquer it and what will my exit strategy be." The NDC's main goal, the officer explains, is to train future leaders who will, in decision-making roles, think not only on a tactical level and ask themselves how certain things can be achieved, but also know how to ask what their purposeis. ANOTHER NEW characteristic of the campus is that all of the signs on classrooms and buildings appear in English as well as in Hebrew. This change was implemented two years ago, when the IDF began allowing foreign military officers to study courses at the NDC. Hacohen is a strong supporter of the foreign program. This year, the NDC has students from Germany, France, the US and another country in Asia. Hacohen hopes that after spending a year at the NDC, the foreign officers will return to their home countries not only with a better understanding of Israel's national security needs, but also as "Israeli ambassadors." "By studying with foreigners, the Israeli students are exposed to a different perspective from the traditional Israeli one," the senior NDC officer tells The Jerusalem Post. "This brings the international community to the classroom."