Last month IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Aviv Kohavi convened military reporters for a briefing – part on-record, part off-record – to sum up the last year. It was supposed to be an important moment for Kohavi, one that he planned to use to set the narrative for the year ahead, and before he hangs up his uniform a year from this Sunday, January 16, 2023.
What took up the most time of the five-hour briefing wasn’t intelligence predictions about a looming clash with Hamas, or the ongoing nuclear negotiations with Iran in Vienna. Instead, what Kohavi found himself answering were questions from the reporters on the quality of food in the IDF, recent reports of health hazards in numerous military kitchens, and pictures circulating on social media of pigeons eating out of the same pots as soldiers.
It seemed to come as a surprise for Kohavi, the latest in a string of them. There was the fierce criticism he came under a few months ago, after fighting to increase pensions for career officers. That brawl with the Treasury for the pensions raised the ire of regular soldiers in compulsory service, who are still making the embarrassing sum of around NIS 900 a month for a non-combat soldier and NIS 1,600 for a combat soldier.
Early on in his term that began in 2018, Kohavi coined the phrase “underwear before socks,” his way of explaining that the IDF has to prioritize and will always first invest in operational needs and only then in extras. It was a phrase he repeated often over the last three years, especially as the country rolled through four elections during the non-stop cycle of political instability marked by the failure to pass a state budget.
That lack of funding left Kohavi with no choice but to prioritize where to put the money he had. He stopped projects underway to upgrade bases for soldiers, and instead poured money into procuring new munitions or more training. While that might have made sense from an operational perspective, it had a secondary effect: people lost trust in the IDF, and, consequently, in its commander, Kohavi.
There is no underestimating the severity of the Israel Democracy Institute report that came out last week showing a sharp drop in public trust in the IDF. It was 78% of Israelis who said they had “a lot” of trust in the IDF, the highest rating among all state institutions – but a 12% drop in two years, and the lowest score in 14 years!
There is no doubt that the relative quiet along Israel’s borders gives the public and media an opportunity to focus on lighter issues, like the “socks” the chief of staff designated as secondary in his list of priorities.
Yes, Gaza has been mostly quiet since Operation Guardian of the Walls in May, Lebanon is quiet, Israeli strikes in Syria pass without a response, and even Iran, while considered a severe threat, is not something that has Israelis overly concerned on a day-to-day basis.
That is a positive, but it comes at a price – it gives people the opportunity to focus on other issues like quality of food, healthcare, budget allocations, ethics, and more.
The IDF’s 12% ratings drop needs to concern anyone who cares about the military. This is especially true for Kohavi, as he considers how he wants his last year in office to look.
Israel is still a country with a compulsory draft. While 50% of youth might not enlist, those who do serve come from all parts of society – the secular and the religious who hail from cities as well as from kibbutzim and settlements in Judea and Samaria.
When society loses its trust in the military, it doesn’t end with a mere verbal vote of no-confidence. It can lead to an even greater reluctance to serve in the IDF, a severe drop in enlistment numbers. That is the danger.
What led to this? There is no single factor, but a number of events contributed. The pensions affair hurt Kohavi. It bolstered an already negative image of the military as an old-boy’s club, a place that first takes care of its own. It was a bad look when the IDF chief was tussling for a billion shekels, at a time when a million Israelis were on unpaid leave due to the corona pandemic. It said something about the military’s disconnect from society.
What added to the black eye was the army not effectively explaining what it was doing, negligent in its management of the media crisis that erupted; and meanwhile, regular soldiers felt that they were being thrown aside on behalf of officers who were already making 30 times what they brought home. Some IDF personnel understood the potential crisis, and urged the General Staff to roll out a salary increase for soldiers at the same time as the pension plan. It didn’t happen.
There were other stains on the IDF scorecard. The clash along the Gaza border in August during which Border Policeman Barel Shmueli was shot dead at close range was immediately pounced on by various politicians, who used the incident as political capital to attack Israel’s two-month-old prime minister, Naftali Bennett.
Right-wing elements used Shmueli’s death to claim that the IDF was restraining itself; that the soldiers did not open fire at the Palestinian protestors because Mansour Abbas and his Ra’am party are part of Bennett’s coalition; and that the IDF does everything it can to “contain” threats instead of eliminating them.
One Likud MK went so far as to call for the establishment of a parliamentary commission of inquiry to investigate Shmueli’s death. Anything to attack the government, including dragging the army through the mud.
Then there was the mysterious death of an intelligence officer in June. Even today, the public does not know exactly what happened, but instead of explaining, the IDF has let conspiracy theories run rampant.
Also damaging was the suicide of Cpl. Niv Lubaton of the Givati Brigade, after he tried to break away from serving as a Military Police informant. It showed a Military Police that lacked compassion and took advantage of vulnerable soldiers.
And then there was the war in May, when the IDF did not hesitate to declare victory. Maj.-Gen. Aharon Haliva – then head of the Operations Directorate and today head of Military Intelligence – claimed that Israel had achieved years of quiet, potentially even five.
We know how that worked out.
During the operation, there was an attack against the Hamas tunnel network, the Metro. Israel claimed that it destroyed the network and killed dozens of terrorist operatives. That too turned out to be far from true.
There are more examples. There is the overall management of media relations in the military with a number of failures properly updating the public, together with an absence of transparency and accountability.
This is all besides the recent spate of tragic accidents – in the air and on the ground – that will always lead people to naturally question the reliability of commanders, and whether it is safe to send their children to serve in uniform.
There is no question that Kohavi has a lot on his plate. There are daily threats along Israel’s borders, and operations that require his constant attention. One could argue that all of that is enough. It might be true, but if he doesn’t do something quickly, his term in office will be remembered as the one when the Israeli people lost trust in their military.
It is a dangerous trend that will have a wide-ranging impact across Israeli society if allowed to continue. Kohavi has a year left to try and change that trend. He needs to get going.