Defense Minister Ehud Barak and IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Benny Gantz were caught this week violating one of the cardinal principles of public life: never assume there isn't an open microphone within earshot.
On a tour of the Golan Heights on Tuesday, the two military honchos poked fun at the recent uproar over female soldiers singing in public, oblivious to the fact that their remarks were being taped.
As they watched an exercise of the Golani Brigade, Barak turned to Gantz and asked him, "What are these female soldiers doing here? Where are they from?" to which Gantz replied, "They are here to sing. They sing during their break."
After Barak mentioned that he had brought along a female aide who could sing even though she was not in uniform, the commander of the Golani Brigade, Col.Ofek Buhris, piped in and said, "As long as she is without a uniform, but with civilian clothes on, it is OK."
The story, which was broken by Ynet, naturally prompted cries of outrage. After all, it was just a few weeks ago that Gantz himself criticized demands by various rabbis that the role of women in the military be restricted. In public, he adopted a firm stance in defense of the rights of women, and here he was making derisive comments about them in private.
Anyone listening to the exchange could not help but cringe at the sorry display of poor taste and pitiful humor, reminiscent of an amateur comedian who evokes more groans than grins.
Indeed, with Iran racing towards the nuclear finish line, Syria on the edge of civil war and Egypt descending into fundamentalism, I sincerely hope their military planning skills surpass their joke-telling ability.
That said, it is difficult to see what all the brouhaha was about. As childish and facile as the comments were, they were hardly as offensive as some feminist groups have made them out to be.
THE REAL story here is not the exchange between Barak and Gantz, but the attempt at censorship that immediately followed. When the two realized that the reporters standing next to them were busy filming their attempt at repartee, Gantz grew indignant and sought to prevent their publication. Turning to a reporter from Army Radio, Gantz declared, "Army Radio, this is not being broadcast. Even if it's once-in-alifetime scoop – it stays on your tape."
He then told Channel 2's military correspondent, Nir Dvori, "You too... otherwise this will be your last story. That would be a pity. Don't let this be your last story."
And in case anyone thought this was a joke, the military censor quickly went into action.
As Ynet reported, "When the tape arrived at the Military Censor's Office for processing, the banter was deemed as being in bad taste and the Defense Ministry and IDF Spokesman's Office asked the media to cut the joke from their reports. Video footage taken by foreign news agencies was also censored accordingly."
Censored? This is the real outrage.
There is simply no excuse for IDF brass to deploy the heavy-handed measure of gagging the press simply to shield themselves from public censure.
This is a shameless abuse of the military censor, an attempt to transform it from an entity that protects the state to one that protects the image of the chief of staff.
The very idea of censorship is already difficult enough to swallow. It runs counter to basic civil liberties such as freedom of the press. Obviously, given Israel's precarious security situation, and the existential threats that it faces, there is no choice but to rein in the press when necessary to safeguard national security.
But the use of this hazardous instrument must be severely limited to cases in which the publication of information would benefit the enemy or inflict damage on the security of the state. We must not allow it to become a PR tool in the hands of top generals.
By seeking to suppress Gantz's juvenile joke to save him from potential embarrassment, the IDF has only ended up inflicting still greater damage. It has undermined confidence in the military censor as a body whose sole focus is protecting the secrets of the state.
And it has revealed an arrogance of power at the highest echelons of the IDF. When a chief of staff feels free to order reporters around like an editor-in-chief, something is truly amiss.
Urgent steps need to be taken to ensure that such abuses of power do not recur. Greater civilian oversight of the military censor's office is evidently needed so that it is not used frivolously to cover up stories. Senior military officers, like other civil servants, should not be able to escape the glare of public scrutiny.
Obviously, those of us who still hoped and believed that our military leaders had the nation's best interests at heart, rather than their own, have been proven very, very wrong by this sorry state of affairs.
Clearly, Gantz's joke is on all of us. And this time, no one is laughing.