The IDF's greatest challenge

The army must internalize the need to formally empower its commanders against the gang-law threatening from the ranks.

Soldiers at the Kalandiya checkpoint 311 (R) (photo credit: REUTERS/Darren Whiteside)
Soldiers at the Kalandiya checkpoint 311 (R)
(photo credit: REUTERS/Darren Whiteside)
In the Jewish state, crisis management might be called the national pastime, and adrenaline the national addiction. Jabotinsky once wrote sardonically that Jews learn not by way of logic but from catastrophes.
That’s why creeping problems without the glamor of full-blown crises are particularly dangerous in Israel.
These problems are always known, at least to some people, at certain times. But because they accrue bit by bit or only intermittently, the crisis levels of adrenaline Israeli leaders require to tackle them are lacking.
The IDF has for years been facing a progressive breakdown of order and discipline among the troops. Drug and alcohol use is widespread and growing, violence among soldiers is no longer rare, and soldier rebellions make the news every other month.
The problem is, it’s not yet a crisis. Here and there headlines jar the public, for instance: “The IDF’s alcohol plague,” which ran last month in Yediot Aharonot.
According the article, about 10 percent of IDF soldiers drink on duty, sometimes while on high alert and “including elite units.” The article did not mention what the whole army knows: The higher command has significantly increased drug and alcohol testing in recent years, but lower ranking officers prefer to turn a blind eye or even to protect their soldiers from exposure.
They have nothing to gain from losing their soldiers to jail-time and making themselves unpopular.
Last month 15 soldiers, some from elite units, were arrested for using and trafficking drugs. The charges included taking drugs during operations.
The public was disturbed, but thereafter the Defense Minister preferred to again remind the public of the intolerable burden of responsibility he faces in deciding whether to bomb Iran, rather than address a situation that so far has failed to produce a crisis.
THE IDF, of course, has never been an especially disciplined army. Orde Wingate, the great British soldier and Zionist whose guiding influence is still felt in Israel’s military culture, despised all military pageantry. Wingate’s notion of taking serious things seriously and forgetting the rest perfectly suited the character of the new Jewish army. In an army where soldiers have always called their officers by first name, hierarchy never mattered much.
That is incontestable, but it is only half the truth.
Since the 1950s Israeli society has evolved in myriad ways. Soldiers inducted into the army today are still motivated, dedicated and sometimes even passionate.
But it is no longer possible to expect a monolithic adherence to a single set of values, or shared ideological norms of service. And we too quickly forget that these were precisely the virtues that made formal discipline unnecessary in yesteryear’s IDF.
Today anarchy grows in Israel’s army and finds no fitting response from above. Into that void, illicit power structures are born from below.
Over two decades a makeshift hierarchy has taken shape between rookie and veteran soldiers in combat units. Rookie soldiers wash, scrub, take the less desirable assignments and forgo sleep. Veteran soldiers have no duties on base, get their food served to them in bed, and are allowed to pick and choose their missions. The yearslong hazing and servitude of new recruits to the veteran soldiers has become so extreme as to demand publicized intervention from officers, though usually only partially successful.
Every one of the half dozen so-called “soldier rebellions” reported in the press over the past few years has its origins in a defense of this institution. Most recently, in October reports reached the public of an entire contingent of veteran soldiers from the Paratroopers division abandoning their base in Hebron over demands they empty garbage containers, considered work for the fresher recruits. After pleas from their officers, all but eight of these soldiers returned to base and were not punished. In a puzzling and chilling statement, the army declared the incident grave, “especially in light of [the soldiers] abandoning the base during operational duties and not during training.”
IDF officers increasingly find themselves powerless before an entrenched hierarchy of veterans over whom they have little influence. At the same time, flare-ups of gang-like violence between different units as they vie for supremacy are no longer very uncommon.
The structural breakdown in the army is serious but far from hopeless.
The IDF has recovered from the shock of its poor performance in Lebanon. Its training regimen has been set on a new and improved footing. The discipline problem, though much more complex, can be solved if seriously and patiently confronted.
Soldiers who refuse the most rudimentary dress code imposed by their officers, themselves impose informal dress codes on one another. Veteran soldiers who speak to their superiors like old friends demand ostentatious respect from rookie soldiers. It no longer suffices to excuse insubordination by saying “the IDF is an informal army.” The IDF has outgrown its traditional informality.
This might indeed be cause for lament, but it can no longer safely be ignored.
Working together with the school system in an intelligent and considered manner, the IDF must find a new formulation for its command structure. Without abandoning the flexibility that continues to make it one of the world’s strongest armies, it must internalize the need to formally empower its commanders against the gang law threatening from the ranks. This will not be a popular action, because no particular group can be singled out for blame. It will probably even be unpopular, because the hallowed public is to blame.
It’s not a crisis, yet. Let’s prevent it from becoming one.
The writer is a public relations professional and freelance writer, based in Jerusalem. He has served in the IDF for ten years.