IDF Chief of Staff Herzi Halevi should call his troops to order

That enemy eulogies of the Jewish state are given a boost by the Israeli press may be disconcerting, but it’s the price—and privilege—of free speech. Soldiers don’t enjoy such a luxury, however.

Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevi at a ceremony at military headquarters in Tel Aviv, Jan. 1, 2023. Photo by Tomer Neuberg/Flash90.
Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevi at a ceremony at military headquarters in Tel Aviv, Jan. 1, 2023. Photo by Tomer Neuberg/Flash90.
Ruthie Blum. Credit: Courtesy.
Ruthie Blum
Ruthie Blum, an author and award-winning columnist, is a former adviser at the office of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

In conversations over the weekend with his superiors, Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevi reportedly conveyed concerns about the effect of the current political situation on the functioning of the army.

According to a Channel 11 report on Sunday, Halevi warned Defense Minister Yoav Gallant and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that the IDF’s operational capabilities will be impaired if the countrywide demonstrations continue. His admonitions followed an announcement by 37 out of 40 active reservist pilots in the Israel Air Force’s elite 69th Squadron that they won’t be participating in an exercise, scheduled for this Wednesday, in protest over judicial overhaul and other government policies they oppose.

Rather than court-martialing this group of combatants, or even taking less harsh measures against them for leveraging their expertise in flying the F15I jets so crucial to missions beyond Israel’s borders, both Halevi and IAF commander Maj. Gen. Tomer Bar have decided that it would be better to enter into dialogue with them.

Reservists from other units whose politics led them to issue comparable declarations are being similarly stroked with kid gloves. Though the phenomenon is inexcusable, it’s not surprising coming from the top brass in question.

In a lengthy feature article in the Hebrew daily Yediot Achronot six months ago, military correspondent Yossi Yehoshua wrote of Halevi—tapped a week earlier by then-Defense Minister Benny Gantz to become the IDF’s 23rd chief of staff—that “the issue most worrisome to him is crumbling social cohesion, which he has often defined as greater than all [the country’s] external threats.”

As a result, explained Yehoshua, the slated head of the Israeli army “is expected to deal [among other things] with military-societal matters.” Somebody should have told him that the second half of that couplet is someone else’s job.

But it’s hard to blame him for positing otherwise. At the annual World Summit on Counter-Terrorism at Reichman University in Herzliya the previous day, Israel Security Agency (Shin Bet) director Ronen Bar also overstepped his purview.

“From the investigations that we’re conducting, we can say today that [Israel’s] political instability and growing [societal] schism constitute an injection of encouragement to the axis-of-evil countries, terrorist organizations and lone wolves,” he said. “Our historical comparative advantage—the one that was to our credit for thousands of years—is fading away. This insight should be the most disturbing of all. The Shin Bet can warn about but not treat it. [The latter] is in the hands of each and every one of us.”

Those who defended Bar’s remarks (delivered several weeks before the Knesset election) did so on the grounds that terrorists apprehended by the Shin Bet told their interrogators that internecine strife in the Jewish state was bolstering their confidence and resolve. In other words, since perception influences enemy actions, security bigwigs have a responsibility to monitor and caution about pitfalls in this realm.

It’s a logical position, particularly in view of the gleeful way in which the international Arab and Iranian media outlets are depicting the present crisis in the country. That they’re being given a serious boost by the Israeli press may be extremely disconcerting, but it’s the price—and privilege—of free speech.

Soldiers don’t enjoy this luxury, however. On the contrary, their individual ideologies are irrelevant to the assignments they are charged to execute. Halevi has the duty to remind them of this in no uncertain terms. His failure on this score only encourages the very foes that the IDF, thankfully, is still fighting on more than one front.

“When we are on the battlefield, we don’t look to the right and left to discern the political views of our brothers and sisters,” said Netanyahu on Monday, after attending a Purim megillah reading at a Border Police base in the Jewish community of Beit Horon. “We [do it] with the knowledge that together, shoulder-to-shoulder, we are storming our enemies, in order to safeguard our security and future.”

This, he stressed, “is the first and most important foundation of our existence in our land. It rests on the deep understanding that whatever the controversies among us, we are always united against those out to kill us. This is how it was during all of Israel’s wars.”

He went on: “Refusal to serve threatens this existential foundation, and thus has no place in our ranks. Israeli society always condemned the refusal to serve.… We never allowed it a foothold—neither in the regular army nor in the reserves; neither in the security forces nor anywhere else. It had no place in the War of Independence, the Oslo Accords or in the disengagement [from Gaza]. There is no room for it now, nor should there be in the future…. because the minute that we give this illness legitimacy, it will spread and become systemic…in controversies to come.”

Netanyahu concluded with a Purim analogy.

“When Haman sought to find the Jews’ weak spot, he said, ‘There is one people that is scattered and divided.’ But…we rose as one; we banded together and achieved victory for generations. We will do it again this time, as well.”

It’s a message that Halevi would do well to hear, heed and repeat.

Ruthie Blum is a Tel Aviv-based columnist and commentator. She writes and lectures on Israeli politics and culture, as well as on U.S.-Israel relations. The winner of the Louis Rappaport award for excellence in commentary, she is the author of the book To Hell in a Handbasket: Carter, Obama, and the “Arab Spring.”

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