In today’s New York Times, Steve Erlanger’s article serves as an example of the positive result of access to its commanders and soldiers for the IDF. Historically, the army has been slow and uncreative in dealing with the press, a product of bureaucracy, understaffing, and misunderstanding of the potential power of the press in Western media. When the journalist is granted access only to army spokespeople, who sound polished and rehearsed, the result is the typical article in which the Israeli spokesperson say one thing and the Palestinian spokesperson the opposite.
When a journalist, especially an unseasoned one schooled on the idea that the IDF is a brutal, colonizing force, is allowed to converse with soldiers and junior officers, he is often surprised by the ethical standards of the soldiers and the diversity of people and opinion. A Boston Globe Magazine article by a embedded reporter with a Sayeret Tzanhanim (Paratrooper reconnaissance) reserve team in Defensive Shield in 2002 talked about the soldiers’ civilian lives- schoolteachers, businessmen, and students. Some were liberal, some conservative. The article infuriated those who cannot stomach any positive coverage of the IDF.
In my experience, the IDF is still too old-fashioned, although there has been improvement. There were many instances when a reporter wanted to speak with me, which would have been beneficial for the IDF, only to have his request turned down until it went through the bureaucracy for approval. On the positive side, in my last months as an officer, two busloads of journalists came to our base, part of a tour organized by the IDF and some independent Jewish organizations. They were only allowed to speak with me and my CO, who is very bright and articulate, but they enjoyed the access to a front-line army base and a chance to see a different side of the IDF.
Israel’s defense forces are considered among the world’s best, a people’s army that combines professionalism and informality, and serves as a melting pot for a complicated society with real enemies.
The army is portrayed a place that encourages creativity and independent thought, contrary to many peoples’ image of the military.
When there is a pullout from the West Bank, “a lot won’t serve in a disengagement, I’m sure of it,” Colonel Haliva said. “Just as some kids on the left don’t want to serve in the territories.”
He wants his officers “to have more questions than answers.” But it is his job and that of his staff to explain “the importance of what they’re doing, and the reasons they’re being ordered to do it,” he said. “After Gaza, we thought that maybe some of these kids would refuse to become officers, but it’s not true.”
Still, there are doubts. Levi Harvith, 22, is a member of the Golani infantry brigade, like the current army chief of staff. Tall, fit and articulate, he has already served in Lebanon and Gaza.
“We’re in elite units,” he said. “We’re trained in flexible thinking. We want to lead by example, but we’re encouraged to solve problems in more creative ways.”
Mr. Harvith sees himself as a leader. “In two months I’ll command 20 soldiers, and from them there will be maybe two officers, and that’s another 40 soldiers, and another 40 families. We have a big effect on the society.”
Even the national religious, often subtly compared to supporters of Hamas (‘hard-liners on both sides’) come across as reasonable and insightful.
He is also religious, he said. Would he have pulled people out of Gaza?
“That’s a good question,” he said, then paused. “For me, it’s not just a religious question but a moral question. I do what I’m told,” he said, pausing again. “Except in moral cases, that’s the point.”
Asked where he would seek advice, he said he would first talk to his father, and then to “previous commanders I admired.”
Would he talk to his rabbi? “Maybe my father would,” he said. “You need the right proportion of asking questions and obeying.”
The importance of the IDF for multi-ethnic cooperation and respect is mentioned. This aspect of the IDF would not emerge were the reporter not allowed to interview regular soldiers and cadets.
Shahar Heimann, 20, is a combat soldier, having served in Jenin, Nablus and Ramallah. He said the cadets were conscious of Israel’s social divide and how it could affect the army.
“Every soldier here sees himself as a company leader,” he said. “We can’t change the whole society, but in a smaller way, by leading our soldiers the best we can.”
He said it was important to mix with officer candidates from “all over the army and the society — the Druse, Bedouin, Ethiopians, Russians.”
“You see all the minorities,” he said, “and you understand their problems better.”
However, the article reminds us of the fallibility and unreliability of the media, especially in the Middle East. Even Steve Erlanger, a veteran reporter, made mistakes in his article. He writes that cadets become First Lieutenants upon completing Officers School, whereas in reality the vast majority become Second Lieutenants. The caption under a photograph of cadets clearly practicing a fire-in-motion exercise at the firing range says they are rehearsing for a ceremony. And Erlanger calls the crater near the Officer’s School, Machtesh Ramon, by the name of the town overlooking the crater, Mitzpe Ramon. Three easily avoidable errors in one article by a veteran journalist in one of the world’s most respected newspapers.