Cpl. Niv Lubaton was an exemplary soldier in the IDF’s Givati Brigade. In 2019, he was recruited by Military Police to serve as an informant about drug dealing in the training base he was serving in at the time - Bislah in southern Israel.
Lubaton initially agreed but shortly after meeting with the Military Policemen who were to become his handlers, he called them and said that he couldn’t serve as an informant, warning that the pressure could lead him to harm himself.
A short time later, Lubaton went missing from his base. His body was later found, a death caused by suicide.
The IDF launched an investigation into Lubaton’s death and determined that the Military Police investigators who had tried to recruit him as an informant, failed to properly report the soldier’s mental health and exerted unnecessary pressure on him to continue working with them.
“This is an unbelievably painful and saddening incident and we must do everything to prevent such an event from recurring,” IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi said in March 2020 after deciding to fire the officer – Maj. Gilad Franken - who ran the Military Police unit that handled Lubaton.
“Intelligence gathering, interrogations and the like must be carried out with sensitivity and concern for the soldier. The Military Police Investigatory Unit must learn lessons and implement them immediately,” the chief of staff concluded.
Four other officers, the commander of the Military Police Investigatory Unit’s southern division and Lubaton’s three direct commanders in his squad leaders’ course also received official reprimands for their failures during the searches for him after he went missing.
Franken, the officer dismissed by Kohavi, did not accept the decision. He hired a lawyer and petitioned the District Court in Beersheba which overturned the IDF’s decision and decided that Franken should be allowed to remain in IDF service.
Judge Arna Levy, ruled that the army could not prove a direct connection between Franken’s actions and Lubaton’s tragic death.
Kohavi refused to accept the court’s ruling and together with the State Prosecutor filed an appeal. Last week, he rejected a compromise proposed by the Supreme Court that would have allowed Franken to remain in the IDF.
Kohavi is right to reject the Supreme Court compromise because what is at stake here is not one officer’s future career, but whether the IDF – and specifically its top commander – has the authority to dismiss someone who is found to have acted no in accordance with military expectations.
Serving in the IDF is not like other places of employment. As David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister said in 1963: “May every Jewish mother know that she has put the fate of her sons in the hands of commanders who are worthy of the responsibility.”
These commanders are people who are supposed to be in service not because of aspirations to advance their career or to make money, but due to ideology, Zionism and a larger purpose.
What this means is that officers are evaluated not just based on performance like in a high-tech company or a manufacturing plant. They are evaluated by their ethics, their principles and their ability to command over soldiers and lead them into battle.
This difference is what gives the chief of staff and other commanders the latitude to determine to end someone’s service due to failures that are not always going to be clear like in an ordinary business setting. Commanders who fail to serve as a proper role model are commanders who the IDF top brass needs to have the right to determine that they should not be able to continue to serve.
That is the authority of the chief of staff and that authority needs to be preserved. Judge Levy’s ruling was wrong since it looked at the Franken affair as if he is just another employee who ran into some trouble with his employer.
If the Supreme Court upholds this ruling, it undermines the authority of the chief of staff and sets a dangerous precedent which ultimately has the potential to erode what the military stands for and what Ben-Gurion spoke about back in 1963.
Service in the IDF is not like work in any other place. The court would do well to remember that.