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IDF ‘Lebanon war’ drill caught defense minister by surprise

Timing of exercise ‘a big mistake,’ opposition MK charges; over 2,000 reserve soldiers summoned in war simulation in the north

Aaron Kalman is a former writer and breaking news editor for the Times of Israel

IDF reserve soldiers take part in a surprise drill in an army base in northern Israel, Tuesday (photo credit: Shay Wagner/Israel Army Spokesman/Flash90)
IDF reserve soldiers take part in a surprise drill in an army base in northern Israel, Tuesday (photo credit: Shay Wagner/Israel Army Spokesman/Flash90)

Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon was unaware of a surprise, large-scale military exercise launched by the IDF on Tuesday, despite the ongoing tension along Israel’s northern border. The drill reportedly simulated a war with Lebanon.

Politicians criticized the timing of the drill, questioning how a move with the potential of being misunderstood by Israel’s enemies as the recruiting of troops for an offensive operation could be accomplished without the defense minister’s seal of approval. Adding to the public outcry was the fact that Ya’alon first found out about the drill when reporters called to ask him why thousands of reservists were being called up.

“What’s important is the exercise itself, not whether the defense minister knew or didn’t [know],” IDF Spokesperson Yoav Mordechai said Tuesday evening.

The IDF called up a full division and some 2,000 reserve soldiers to the northern part of the country for a drill simulating the mobilization of a large number of troops in a short period. Most of the men were sent home hours after arriving at the meeting points, but the officers remained and were only to be released Thursday.

The decision to launch the drill was reportedly based on the threats to Israel’s security along its northern border with both Syria and Lebanon.

“The timing of the IDF’s surprise exercise is a big mistake,” MK Omer Bar-Lev (Labor) said Wednesday. Bar-Lev, a member of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, said he has asked that a special session discuss the drill and make sure “the lesson is learned.”

At a time when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has asked cabinet members to remain mum on anything regarding Syria, “it’s unthinkable that the IDF would conduct a large-scale drill of this sort” without the knowledge of Ya’alon or his office, Bar-Lev wrote on Facebook.

“It sounds unreasonable” that Ya’alon wasn’t aware of the drill, former defense minister Binyamin Ben Eliezer told Army Radio, saying when he was in office he knew of every drill that involved the call-up of reserves.

“There could have been a technical error. I don’t think anyone is trying to go head to head with the defense minister,” Ben Eliezer said. He didn’t believe Ya’alon was left out of the loop on purpose, he said.

Amos Harel, Haaretz’s senior military corespondent, described top officials in the Defense Ministry as being “totally embarrassed” by the unannounced drill.

But Ya’alon downplayed the matter and dismissed the criticism. A statement from his office said that the clamor was groundless, and noted that the defense minister didn’t need to be informed of every army exercise.

During the drill, the Haaretz daily wrote, a reserve division was called in and asked to draw up operative plans and prepare itself for combat in Lebanon within 48 hours. Such an exercise “hasn’t taken place for many years,” an unnamed officer told the paper. “The reality and threats force us to prepare accordingly, part of which means maintaining a high level of readiness.”

Israel has expressed worry over the Syrian civil war spilling over into Israel and the possibility of Damascus’s large supply of chemical weapons being turned against the Jewish state.

Israel is also concerned over the possibility that the Lebanese-based terror group Hezbollah would come into possession of chemical weapons.

The last time the army called a surprise drill in the north was in September 2012.

Asher Zeiger contributed to this report.

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