It’s been a long time in coming, but it finally happened.
The IDF General Staff has lost the public trust.
This is terrible for the General Staff. But it is more terrible for the country, because the public is right not to trust our military leaders. They have earned our distrust fair and square.
The final straw came in less than optimal circumstances.
But such is life. Things are never cut and dry. On Purim, Sgt. Elor Azaria killed a terrorist in Hebron as he lay on the ground, shot, following his attempted murder of one of Azaria’s comrades.
Still today, we don’t know whether Azaria acted properly or improperly. He claims that he believed the terrorist had a bomb beneath the heavy jacket he was wearing in the middle of a heat wave.
Azaria claims that he shot him because he feared that the terrorist – who was moving – was trying to detonate the bomb. This view was shared by emergency personnel at the scene caring for the wounded soldier.
But even before he had a chance to tell his story, IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Gadi Eisenkot and Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon had already declared Azaria guilty of murder. Based on an initial field investigation and a snuff film produced by the European-funded anti-Israel group B’Tselem, Eisenkot and Ya’alon excoriated Azaria and pronounced the soldier, who was decorated for his service just last year, a rotten apple.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu initially joined them in their condemnations. But when he realized that the public wasn’t buying it and that the evidence was far from cut and dry, to his credit, Netanyahu walked back his remarks.
Ya’alon and Eisenkot, in contrast, have refused to let the uncertainty of the situation affect them.
Their continued assaults on the soldier have compounded the damage. Their stubborn refusal to give Azaria the benefit of the doubt and admit that he may well have comported himself properly indicates that they have no idea how their statements are being viewed by the public, or worse, they may not care. They may simply be playing for another audience.
And here lies the beginning of the real problem.
For the public – including the five thousand citizens who came to the support rally for Azaria at Rabin Square on Tuesday – the critical moment was when the film of Azaria being led away from the scene in handcuffs was broadcast on the evening news. That image, of a combat soldier who killed a terrorist being treated like a criminal, was the breaking point for the public. Whether he was guilty or innocent was beside the point. The point was that his commanders – beginning with the defense minister and the chief of General Staff – were treating him like a criminal instead of a combat soldier on the front lines defending our country from an enemy that seeks our destruction.
This image, combined with Ya’alon’s and Eisenkot’s increasingly shrill and caustic condemnations of Azaria, was a breach of the social contract between the IDF and the public. That social contract says that we serve in the IDF. We send our children to serve in the IDF. And the IDF values us and values our sons and daughters as its own.
The sense that our generals are not on the same page as the rest of us has been gnawing at us since at least April 2002, in the aftermath of the battle in Jenin, during the course of Operation Defensive Shield.
Back then, fearing CNN and the UN, IDF commanders sent a reserve battalion into Jenin refugee camp, the epicenter of the Palestinian murder machine, without air cover and without armored vehicles. Thirteen reservists were killed in one day. Twenty-three soldiers were killed in the three-day battle.
The sense of alienation continued through the war in Lebanon four years later when the IDF conducted one of the most inept campaigns in its history. Soldiers were sent willy-nilly into battles with no strategic purpose because the General Staff wanted to “stage a picture of victory.”
This sense has been maintained in successive inconclusive campaigns in Gaza.
Now, with the General Staff’s decision to turn Azaria into a scapegoat at a time when it is failing to defeat the Palestinian terrorist wave in Judea and Samaria, that gnawing sense that something is amiss has become a certainty.
Our generals are not on the same page as the rest of us. In fact, they aren’t even reading the same book.
Our generals are motivated by three impulses and strategic assumptions that are not shared by the majority of Israelis.
The first of those is their willingness to sacrifice soldiers in battles, and, in the case of Azaria, in show trials, in the hopes of winning the support of the Europeans and other Western elites. This impulse is not simply problematic. It is insane, because for more than a decade, it has been continuously proven futile.
At least since the battle in Jenin, it has been abundantly obvious that the Europeans will never support us. The Europeans, along with the UN and the Western media, ignored completely the lengths Israel went to prevent Palestinian civilian casualties in Jenin. They accused us of committing a Nazi-style massacre despite the fact that not only wasn’t there a shred of evidence to back their wild allegations. There were mountains of evidence proving the opposite. The Palestinians were massacring Israelis and would have continued to do so, had the IDF not retaken their population centers and so ended their ability to strike us at will.
And yet, despite the trail of UN blood libels from Jenin to the Goldstone Report and beyond, despite the faked media images of purported IDF bombings of civilians in Lebanon and Gaza, despite the hostility of EU diplomats and politicians and the open anti-Semitism of the European media and public, our generals still care what these people think about us.
Eisenkot and his generals still believe that by giving soldiers sometimes life-threateningly limited rules of engagement, by forcing every battalion commander to have a legal adviser approve his targeting decisions, the Europeans will be convinced that they should stop supporting our enemies.
The second impulse separating our generals from us is that almost to a man, members of the General Staff want a Palestinian state to be established in Judea, Samaria and Jerusalem and they want that state to be joined in some way with Gaza.
After 15 years of Palestinian terrorism and political warfare, our security brass still believe that the PLO is Israel’s partner. It doesn’t matter to them that the PLO is driving the current wave of terrorism just as it drove all the previous ones.
This is the reason that Eisenkot and his ideologically driven generals insist that we leave the Palestinian population centers after we spent so much blood and treasure fighting our way into them 14 years ago.
This is the reason that while Eisenkot and his generals insist that the PA security services are helping us fight terrorism even though no help would be necessary if the PA wasn’t inciting terrorism.
The generals’ stubborn faith in the notion that Palestinian terrorists who seek the destruction of our country will magically be transformed into allies the minute we turn the keys to our security over to them, sets them apart from the vast majority of Israelis.
Most Israelis support a theoretical Palestinian state that is at peace with us. Most Israelis would be willing to give up substantial amounts of territory if doing so would bring peace with the Palestinians.
But most Israelis also recognize that the Palestinians are not interested in peace with us and as a consequence, it makes no sense to give them any land. Most Israelis recognize that you can’t trust the good intentions of leaders who tell their school-age children to stab our school-age children.
The third impulse separating our generals from the public is their embrace and glorification of weakness. On every front, for more than 20 years, members of the General Staff have embraced the notion that there is no military solution to any of the security threats facing the country.
Until the Syrian civil war, the generals believed that if we left northern Israel vulnerable to attack and invasion by giving the Assad dynasty the Golan Heights, then the Assads would be magically convinced to ditch their Iranian sponsors and make common cause with an Israel that could no longer defend itself.
They have opposed attacking Iran’s nuclear facilities, insisting that we can trust the US, even though it has been obvious for years that the US would take no action to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.
As for the US, the IDF embraces strategic dependency on the US. They insist that we can trust the Americans even though the Obama administration sided with Hamas in Operation Protective Edge. They continue to argue that we can depend on American even though the Obama administration is actively enabling Iran to acquire nuclear weapons. Utterly foreign to them is the notion that Israel would strengthen its alliance with the US by acting independently against Iran’s nuclear facilities, because doing so would prove that Israel is not a strategic basket case but a regional power that commands respect.
They oppose destroying Hamas’s military capabilities.
As a consequence, they have conducted four campaigns in Gaza since the 2005 withdrawal that all lacked a concept of victory. And by the way, the General Staff enthusiastically supported the strategically irrational withdrawal from Gaza.
When the public gets angry at our generals for not striving to defeat Hamas, for instance, they look at us like we fell off of Mars. Why would they want to defeat Hamas? Their job is to contain Hamas. And they are doing their job so well that Hamas managed to dig a tunnel right under their feet.
What explains our generals’ embrace of positions that most Israelis reject? Why are they willing to sacrifice soldiers and embrace Orwellian notions that weakness rather than strength is the key to peace? It is hard to say. Perhaps it’s groupthink. Perhaps it’s the selection process. Perhaps it’s overexposure to Europeans or Americans. Perhaps they are radicals in uniforms. Perhaps it is none of those things.
But whatever the cause of their behavior, the fact is that behavior has alienated them from Israeli society. In treating Palestinian terrorists with more respect than it accords its own soldiers, the IDF General Staff is earning the public’s fury. And in their contemptuous dismissal of the public’s loss of trust, our generals – including Ya’alon – are demonstrating that they have become strangers to their own society. This of course is a calamity.
The IDF lost the public’s trust at Purim. Let us hope that at Passover, our generals will leave their bubble and begin repairing the damage they caused. They are not in Europe. They are here.
And they need to be with us.