IDI's annual conference on National Security and Democracy, held in partnership with the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung (Israel office), convened top officers and academic experts to discuss the changing relations between the IDF and Israeli society and draw lessons for the future from the military’s unprecedented involvement in the civilian COVID-19 crisis.
Ahead of the conference, the Israel Democracy Institute conducted a broad survey on the question of trust in the IDF, which showed that while public confidence in the military's readiness for security threats is high, it is lower when it comes to the civilian aspects it deals with.
Home Front Commander, Major General Uri Gordin: "The Ministry of Health should be in charge of managing the pandemic. We can help, and we do a great deal. I do not think we should engage in enforcement missions, I do not think the military should engage in civilian policy, it is not our job. The political echelon should formulate civilian policy and the Ministry of Health should formulate health policy. Our job is to assist them."
"In the first wave, when we dealt with the pandemic, we dealt a lot with civilian assistance and distributed a lot of 'fish'. The treatment was effective, but over time we began building 'fishing rods' and our work in the civilian space was more effective. Today when I look at the Ministry of Health’s epidemiological data systems – they are better, many times over, thanks to our working together. COVID-19 greatly strengthened the 'muscles' of all civilian systems, and I am glad that the Home Front Command and the IDF were a significant catalyst in strengthening these 'muscles.'"
On the home front as a front-line, "The next war will be different from past wars. Border defense is a strong defense. On the other hand, the enemy has chosen rockets and missiles as the main component of its military base. The home front is ready to deal with a rocket and missile attack as we expect in the next campaign. If we prepare correctly, we will be able to dramatically reduce the number of casualties in the home front."
Prof. Ronni Gamzu, Director General of the Tel Aviv Sourasky Medical Center (Ichilov) and former director of 'Magen Israel': The coronavirus crisis posed very substantial and operative challenges, that were not necessarily the Ministry of Health’s forte. It was a mistake to think that the Ministry of Health could manage this complex event. The boundaries of the decree are clear - the Ministry of Health provides the professional advice. Management, operation, speed and accuracy of execution, including sampling, testing, questioning - let others do those. I realized this was what needed to be done from the day I was appointed to the position. I salute the army for taking on challenges they are not used to."
In reference to the opening of the education system: "A solution must be found to allow sixth and seventh grades to return to school, one way or another, even partially. COVID-19 should continue to be managed with education. To be clear, children are contagious, but the balances need to be found. Economic trade – yes. Education- yes as well. Everything in an orderly and careful manner, much more than what happened on September 1st when the school year opened."
Regarding the vaccine for the virus, Prof. Gamzu stated: "The coronavirus crisis will end in 2021. In my opinion, the vaccine will be successful. We will see in the first half of 2021 massive marketing and production of the vaccine, probably not just from one company."
On the ISA's (Shabak) contact tracing he said: "The use of ISA tools deprives all decision-makers of sleep. Nevertheless, the State of Israel is very careful about privacy. In Israel, the struggle against the pandemic does not infringe on privacy at this stage, and decision-makers do their utmost to reach balance all the time. Everyone is trying to get through this incident with a minimum of invasion of privacy."
Prof. Ronni Gamzu: "The coronavirus crisis will end in 2021"
IDF Home Front Command Commander: "The next war will be different others in the past"
MK Ofer Shelach: "In recent years, there have been deliberate political attacks on IDF leadership"
Maj. Gen. (Res.) Yitzhak Brick: "The army is falling into a coma and is not preparing for war"
Brigadier General Hedi Zilberman, IDF Spokesperson: "Public trust in the IDF is a component of national security. It is stable and high over the years, and stems first and foremost from the activities of the army, which is ready for war. There is a clear linear relationship between transparency and trust. I do not allow transparency only in places where it harms the security of our forces, the security of information in the IDF or in places where I think transparency could reward the enemy and harms our forces. "
"The IDF did everything in its power to help the country throughout the coronavirus crisis. When we saw that the soldiers were getting dragged into policing activities we put a stop to it. We must keep the IDF clean of controversies that can arise due to the lack of consensus on how to manage this crisis."
On the professionalism of the committee for examining the integration of women in combat roles, Brigadier General Zilberman said: "We are examining physiological, health, economic aspects, in which units it is possible and which are not. What is important is making the right decisions for operational effectiveness."
Regarding the announcement of the mistake or inaccuracy regarding the number of ultra-Orthodox recruits hurting public trust, he replied: "The army is a large body, tens of thousands of people and even more. In the event of a mistake we must quickly and clearly admit to it. This is true for every organization and certainly of the IDF."
Asked if there were events that he did not feel comfortable talking about, he said: "There were a number of them, I think it is natural. At the end of the day, my job is to represent the IDF and its actions. I don’t necessarily agree with one hundred percent of the things the army does - I agree with very high percentages. And when there is such a situation occurs [that I don't], I act out of a responsibility to do what is right for the army."
MK Ofer Shelach, Yesh Atid-Telem: "In recent years there has been a deliberate political attack on the top army echelon, especially when Gadi Eizenkot was Chief of Staff, and during the Elor Azaria incident, which aims to attribute to the army a certain set of political values and weaken the security authority of the military leadership. This wing, which opposes any territorial concessions, know that when such an agreement comes to the table, the military leadership will have to weigh in on the topic. That is the reason behind the attempt to portray the top army echelon as weak leftists that don’t want to win.”
On the IDF's involvement in the Corona crisis, MK Shelach said: "On a certain level, the crisis exposed the fact that the defense establishment is not omnipotent. When you bring the Mossad to do 'shopping' or the elite military units to do tests, then in the end it becomes clear that the civilian services could have done it better with less resources. This is not the fault of the defense establishment - politicians wanted to hide under the guise of bringing the elite military units to deal with the tests."
Maj. Gen. (Res.) Yitzhak Brick, former commander of the military colleges and IDF ombudsman’s: "Public confidence surveys in the military do not reflect the dismal reality on the ground in recent years. This creates an illusion that causes indifference and complacency of the public and the political and security echelon and a lack of treatment of critical problems. The next war will be different from all past wars because it will be on the home front. The army is sinking into a deep coma and not preparing for the war properly."
"Chief of Staff Kochavi is in a difficult situation. The coronavirus crisis is nothing compared to the next war - if it breaks out, it will take us back thirty years. There will be no electricity, no industry and employment, no bases, and no one talks about it. Kochavi is asking the Ministry of Finance for something to advance this and is met with refusal. They have created an image of success for the army – which isn’t accurate."
Brick added: "Shortening the military service for men by another two months is damaging to regular service. The four months that were shortened five years ago caused the training to be shortened, the lack of reinforcements from combat supporters, and now, another two months is a complete disaster."
Ayman Saif, head of the 'Magen Israel' operations in the Arab sector: "In the corona crisis we saw that the government transferred responsibilities to the security forces to manage the crisis, and Arab society had to deal with that decision. It worked well. It is not obvious given that soldiers are seen inside Arab local authorities."
Israel Porush, Mayor of Elad: "The Home Front Command is one of the best institutions the State of Israel has. The Home Front Command, together with the local police and local government, were prepared to take over management of the coronavirus crisis when no one knew what it was. But government politics, on the national level, along with parts of the IDF didn’t let the HFC take control. This has created a lack of trust between local and central government, and between the public and local government."
MK Michal Cotler-Wunsh , Blue and White: "Public trust in the IDF is the 'iron dome' of Israeli society, on which the state was established and on which its foundations will continue to exist. The cracks in public trust are a reflection of the weakening mutual guarantee. This is an opportunity to create a dialogue that enables accessibility and integration of ultra-Orthodox society and the Arab sector within what we see as civic commitment. Taking advantage of this opportunity to restore the mutual guarantee of Israeli society is essential for all of us as a society."
Yohanan Plesner, President of the Israel Democracy Institute: "Those who believe that the IDF should be the people's army, and those who think it is time to change a model agree that as of now it is not really the pPeople’s army. It is true that the IDF is the institution that consistently enjoys the highest level of trust among the Israeli public, but there is a gap between the public's trust in it regarding military missions and in civilian and social aspects. Three decades ago, 75% enlisted. The demographics are not waiting for the decisions of the political system - they are only making them more difficult. A decision must be made now."
Dr. Idit Shafran Gittleman, Head of the Military Program and a researcher at the Israel Democracy Institute: "The demand for full transparency must stop hiding behind a wall of security needs, it has already come from the public. In 2020, transparency is not a privilege."
On the army's involvement in the Corona crisis, she said: "As long as the IDF is perceived as an aid body, it is fine and good, but once it takes on enforcement missions and soldiers are sent to demonstration centers and clashes with civilians - the danger to the military is very great. In addition, we as a public have a deep expectation that the IDF will defeat the coronavirus, and the army must take into account that there is a chance that something will go wrong and lead to a breach of trust."
Prof. Tamar Herman, Director of the Guttman Center for Public Opinion and Policy Research at the Israel Democracy Institute: "The most problematic group in terms of their attitude toward the military are those aged 18-25, those before enlistment, during or immediately after service. This is a very important reference group for the military. Understand that even though there is a high level of trust in the IDF, trust in it is not like the skyscrapers that sit on the rocks of Manhattan knowing that there will be no earthquake. If the army does not take care of groups that have a problem of trust in it, it may find itself standing on shifting sands. "
Prof. Amichai Cohen, Senior Fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute: "After we saw the army move away from its social functions in the 1980s, the coronavirus crisis returned the army to social involvement. The IDF is the most skilled body in the country in dealing with emergency issues. On the home front during times of military conflict, - it has contact with local authorities and civilian aid agencies. It is perhaps the only body in Israel that even if all systems collapse, it is still able to function and meet the needs of its citizens. Therefore, in civilian crises of various kinds, it is essential that the IDF assist at a certain level, but there must be a better series of the question of when and how the IDF is involved in civilian crises. The current regulation in the law is lacking."