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Israel's 'Vietnam' Tarnishes Once-Sacred Military A War of Attrition Next Door and a 'Softer' Society Take a Toll on Mideast's Toughest Army

Article excerpt

When it came to making him a tough Israeli paratrooper some 30 years ago, Reuven Gal remembers the "water discipline" most. During training in the scorching Negev Desert, every soldier was allowed just one quart of water each day.

"We started to lose people, some died," recalls Mr. Gal, a former chief psychologist of the Israeli Army. "So they established clear guidelines, and 'water discipline' vanished."

But such strict discipline helped to turn Israel's armed forces into the most formidable fighting machine in the Middle East, winning on the battlefield against an array of far more numerous Arab armies several times in its 50-year history. For just as long, the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) have been a sacred institution here, entrusted with the survival of the Jewish state. But cracks in that edifice are growing - mirroring fundamental changes in Israeli society. Recent high-profile incidents in southern Lebanon, where Israel has been locked in a war of attrition that many refer to as its "Vietnam," have sparked hostile public scrutiny and open mistrust. The outcry is revealing what some analysts describe as a growing mediocrity in the armed forces and a lack of morale, especially in the reserves. The peace process also has led many to believe that Israel's wars have already been fought, contributing to a fading sense of urgency and an unwillingness to serve on the front line. Such confidence that Israel's existence is no longer in doubt has brought a softening of the Israeli warrior. Other character-building exercises, for example, have gone the same way as "water discipline." Gone are nights of sleep deprivation and long, hard runs that once began on Day 1 of basic training. Inductees were also once kept from going home for two months. But Israeli parents these days visit their children's bases frequently. Parents even assist their offspring to complete their grueling march through the countryside at graduation, sometimes jumping into the ranks to help them carry equipment. 'Softer soldiers' "I don't think this has taken the sharp edge off the Israeli Defense Forces, which are as tough as ever," says Gal, author the 1986 book "A Portrait of the Israeli Soldier." "But the end result is a much softer soldier." The change points to a broader lesson about modern Israel, says Zeev Schiff, a military analyst with the Haaretz newspaper. "It's a reflection of a different society - of a society that has gained a lot of weight," he says. "This is a rich army with more sophisticated equipment than anybody else. But now we are slower, bigger, and more careful." Recent blows to the armed forces have shocked Israel. In February, 73 soldiers were killed when two helicopters collided while flying to Israeli-occupied southern Lebanon. In late August, five soldiers there were burned to death in a brush fire started by Israeli shelling. And on Sept. 4, 12 of Israel's elite naval commandos died when their raiding party was ambushed deep inside Lebanon. These events have sharpened the debate about how to get out of Lebanon. But they have also been grist for the country's news media, which have turned the debate into a public affair. "The myth of the IDF being the ultimate combination between Einstein's brain and Samson's brawn is no more," wrote Haaretz columnist Yoel Marcus in September. "From warriors we have become worriers." High-level divisions have added to the sense of crisis. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Israeli analysts say, is an "outsider who knows how to talk." Senior commanders don't trust his judgment, they add, and point to Mr. Netanyahu's November meeting with his chief of staff - the first in five months. Such a gap is unheard of in a country renowned for the symbiosis between the military and politicians. Netanyahu was a captain in an elite unit himself, but since then he lived many years in the United States. The depth of mistrust was plain in October, when more than 100 veterans of Netanyahu's former unit signed a petition to protest his hard-line policies that have brought the peace process to a halt. …