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Favourite Sons

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Favourite Sons

The Military in Israeli society

By Edward Bernard Glick


On the eve of Israel’s Six Day War of 1967, in which Israelis expected to suffer 10,000 dead, the novelist Moshe Shamir wrote: "Between us and death stands only Zahal. Only Zahal." (Zahal is the Hebrew acronym for the IDF, or the Israel Defence Forces.) Now, nearly 40 years later, most Israelis still believe that Zahal, which in single-service Israel includes the navy, the air force, and the army, headed by but one Chief of Staff, is the only thing that stands between them and destruction.

Having been traumatised by the extermination of one-third of world Jewry during Hitler’s Holocaust, having survived two intifadas and innumerable acts of terrorism, and having taken a vow that the spectacle of unarmed Jews being killed with immunity and impunity will never happen again, especially in the Middle East, Israelis are very protective of their army and its image.

Thus, an organisation called Daled Bet (the initial letters for the Hebrew words Dikui Bogdim, which means Suppression of Traitors) circulated a flyer in Jerusalem decades ago. Directed against Israeli New Leftists and Post-Zionists, it said in part: "You have been warned... Stop your vile practice of dirtying the name of your country’s security forces... We will not stand by as you self-hating Jews use your freedom here to cast a bad name on Zahal." Nothing came of the incident, and the organisation, if it still exists, does not represent typical Israelis.

Today, there are left-leaning Israeli soldiers who refuse on principle to serve in the territories, and they are cashiered from the army or they go to jail. Unlike many leftists elsewhere, they understand that unlawful actions have consequences, and they are willing to pay a price for their convictions.

But most current criticism of Zahal comes from right-wing politicians and right-wing rabbis, as well as from Jewish settlers in the territories, who threaten to resist any effort by the army to evict them from the Gaza Strip or the West Bank, which they call Judea and Samaria.

Even so renowned an establishment figure as the late Foreign Minister Abba Eban was not spared criticism from those who don’t like to hear the army scolded. During a 1973 address at the University of Haifa, which dealt with some of his countrymen’s lesser qualities, he said: "In an essential air operation against murderous saboteurs, the inhabitants of a Druze village in Lebanon are inadvertently hit, and a great clamour of protest goes up precisely because the authorised representative of the government acknowledged the error and expressed regret."

Despite their shock at the intelligence failure when the surprise 1973 Yom Kippur War broke out, Israelis still accord to Zahal a degree of devotion and respect unique in the history of democratic societies. In fact, the late Shlomo Goren, who served as the Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Israel and who, before that, spent more than twenty years as the army’s Chief Chaplain, used words and phrases akin to sanctification. After the Six Day War, he called Zahal "soldiers of Israel, beloved of your people" and "beloved soldiers, dear sons of your people." Some time later, he said: "Our goal . . . is to link our defence forces with the Maccabees and Bar Kochba, with Joshua and David. The Torah says," Rabbi Goren continued, ‘Let your camp be holy’."

And Ruth Bondy, the senior editor of a post-Six Day War volume about Israel called Mission Survival, put this passage in it: "An old man is pushing a baby carriage. His wife struggles along after him, pausing to embrace a soldier. ‘You are our Messiahs,’" she says to him. There is another passage in the book: "They all have a great name now - Giborei Yisrael - the heroes of Israel. Zahal is the modern name. Giborei Yisrael - those were the warriors under King David, those were the Maccabees, those were the people of Masada and the rebels of the Warsaw Ghetto. That is what we call them today. There is a greatness in the name."

Messiahs or not, Maccabees or not, the practical result of this popular admiration - there is too much of it - for Zahal is that no group of Israelis, including the politicians who wield great power and the professors who enjoy great prestige, can compete with its place in Israeli society. (If there is an exception to what I have just written, it is an Israeli software multimillionaire.)

When I was living in Jerusalem, one of my neighbours, and not my friendliest one at that, stopped me in front of my house one day. With great joy, she told me that her son had been accepted into the air force as a flight cadet. She was the wife of a professor, a much more esteemed profession in Israel than it is in America. (Once an Israeli physician in academic medicine becomes a professor, neither he, his colleagues, his patients, his students, nor his neighbours will ever refer to him as "Doctor" again.) Yet this Jewish mother buttonholed me, and everyone else who cared to listen, to tell us about "my son the air force pilot," not "my son the professor," "my son the doctor," or "my son the lawyer." Similarly, a few years later, one of Israel’s richest men invited me to a gigantic party in his villa in Savyon, Tel Aviv’s toniest suburb, to celebrate his son’s surviving flight school and becoming a fighter pilot.

Not even the venerated kibbutz, the ideological fixative of the Zionist movement, can now compete with the army as the preeminent source of national pride. The kudos which older Israelis give to the pioneering kibbutz for building the state, younger Israelis give to the practical army for preserving the state. There is, however, still a symbiotic tie between these two institutions. For the number of kibbutzniks in the officer corps and in the elite units like the paratroopers, the frogmen, and the flyers is much higher than their tiny percentage in Israel’s population, a point painfully illustrated by the fact that at least a quarter of the officers killed in the 1967 and 1973 wars were kibbutz members.

There is another reason why Zahal enjoys such esteem and why post-retirement opportunities accrue to its senior officers, from the rank of lieutenant colonel upward. Compared to other institutions, it is the most meritorious and efficient sector in Israel, as indicated by the following true anecdote:

One day, the Ramatkal, the army Chief of Staff, asked the George Washington of Israel, David Ben Gurion, who was Israel’s first Prime Minister and first Minister of Defence, for a meeting to discuss an urgent matter. Ordinarily, the general came to the point quickly and clearly. But this time he had trouble doing so. Finally, he said to an increasingly impatient B.G. (To his face, Ben Gurion was usually addressed in English as B.G. Behind his back, he was usually called hazaken, which is Hebrew for the Old Man): "Your son Amos is a major and he wants to make the regular army his career. But as you know, the big jump in Zahal is from major to lieutenant colonel. I have asked for this meeting because I wanted to tell you in person before you saw the written list tomorrow morning that after long and heated discussions, both the promotion board and the general staff have concluded that Amos simply doesn’t have what it takes to go any farther up the ladder, and we have transferred him from the regular to the reserve army. I hope you understand."

As the story continues, Ben Gurion figuratively shot through the roof, flew around the world twelve times, then circled the moon twice, and came back to earth in a flaming rage, shouting at the Chief of Staff in his highest of high-pitched voices: "In the midst of constant attacks from our neighbours, I am trying to teach Jews from eighty countries how to live in a renascent Jewish state. And you, my dear general, are charged with defending that state. The two of us will never succeed if we allow proteksia [influence, favouritism, nepotism or cronyism] to corrupt the army. Yes, I am angry. But I am angry because you and your colleagues were stupid enough to spend so much time arguing about what to do about a Prime Minister’s son and about how I would react to your ending his career. If you think that Amos isn’t good enough to make it, then he’s not good enough to make it. And that’s good enough for me. If you ever come to see me about such a matter again, I’ll sack you and the whole general staff faster than any of you can say B.G. or the Old Man. Now, get out of my office and worry not about me and Amos, but about the training and battle readiness of our young soldiers."

Israel’s young soldiers, the ones who do the fighting and the dying, are especially keen on the army. They are impressed with how it relates to them, with how it reflects them, and with how it separates them from some of the mores of their elders. As Amnon Rubinstein, journalist, professor, law-school dean, and sometimes cabinet Minister, put it in Ha’aretz, the New York Times of Israel, "As against the petrified doctrines of these men of yesterday, the contemporary Israeli is marked by a pragmatic approach. The Israeli army is led by young men of this type... All the deficiencies to be found in the veteran political leadership - historic rights, petrified dogmatism, lack of contact with the people, language and style dating from the past - do not exist in Israeli army leadership. Only in the army is the new Israeli generation permitted to talk its own language, to do its job in the way it understands. And we may say that the results of this attempt are not so very bad."

But while Rubinstein’s characterisation of Israel’s older generation is true, it is also unfair. For when it comes to translating generalised statements of respect into practical post-retirement rewards, the men of yesterday have treated the former senior officers of the army very well, very well indeed. They have done it by allowing - I would even say enticing - them into the upper reaches of business, banking, the civil bureaucracy, university administration, and politics. The current Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, his immediate predecessor Ehud Barak, the assassinated Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, the late deputy Prime Minister Yigal Allon, the current Defence Minister Shaul Mofaz, the late Defence Minister Moshe Dayan, and the recently deceased Israeli president Ezer Weizmann are simply the most famous of the generals who "parachuted" - as the Israelis say - into high politics and high places.

There are reciprocal reasons for this. Israeli generals retire in their 40s and 50s, and most of them look forward to 15 or 20 years in a second career. Yigal Yadin, the chief of staff in the 1948 War of Independence, was only 35 when he retired, got a Ph.D. from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and then became Israel’s most illustrious biblical archeologist. For their part, Israeli private firms, governmental bodies, and political parties are only too eager to get the ruboff from Zahal’s prestige and reputation.

But there are only so many high-level and high middle-level jobs in Israel. If more and more of them go to General X, there are fewer and fewer of them left for Mr. Y. Thus, the civilian who has faithfully toiled for his party in the hope of being in the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, or in the cabinet; the deputy director-general in a ministry who hoped to be promoted to director-general; the senior manager who expected to be made the CEO of a government corporation or a private business - all these people are bound to be unhappy with the fact that their dreams were shattered by General X or Colonel Z.

This would be a problem in any society. But it is a particularly vexing problem in Israel because job advancement there occurs only vertically, never horizontally. Israelis pick their career ladders rather early then spend the rest of their working lives climbing them quickly, slowly, or not at all. There is little lateral transfer between the career ladders.

Nothing in Israel resembles the American practice of businessmen doing a stint of government service and then going back to industry, only to show up again in Washington at some future time. Israeli attorneys don’t move back and forth between elective office, appointive office, and their law office. Israeli professors don’t make careers in the university, take leaves to be government officials, and then return to academia. An academic stays in academia, a politician stays in politics, and a businessman stays in business. Only ex-Zahalniks are exempt from these unwritten rules. Only they are allowed to jump from the top of one ladder to the top of another.

While only three former IDF generals (Ehud Barak, Yitzhak Rabin, and Ariel Sharon) have been Israeli Prime Ministers, nine former US army generals were American presidents: Dwight Eisenhower, James Garfield, Ulysses Grant, Benjamin Harrison, Rutherford Hayes, Andrew Jackson, Andrew Johnson, Zachary Taylor, and George Washington. Yet, no one suggests that these men are the root cause of "American militarism."

But given the many ex-generals in Israeli politics, the pervasive military presence even during periods of relative calm, the huge amounts of money spent on national defence, the compulsory conscription of both men and women - Israelis feel that relying solely on an all-volunteer army is undemocratic - the compulsory reserve duty, the many wars, and the need for officers to lead Israel’s citizen-soldiers into battle, it is proper to wonder about "Israeli militarism."

With all the uniforms, guns, and tanks in Israel, it is patent that the country is heavily militarised. But it is not militaristic, for the dictionary defines militarism as "the predominance of the armed forces in the administration or policy of the state." The army does not tell the government what to do; the government tells the army what to do. In short, the Israeli ethos is inspired by the history of the civilians of Athens, not by the soldiers of Sparta.

However, like all armies in democratic societies, Zahal is always involved in the politics of stating opinions and the politics of giving advice. For example, with regard to withdrawing from the territories and accepting the right of the Palestinians to a sovereign state of their own, Zahal is much more dovish than the general population. Countless chiefs of staff and chiefs of intelligence have for decades told the cabinet and the Knesset that a peaceful solution to the Israeli-Palestinian problem does not lie in the military arena.

If there are defects in the democracy of the Jewish state, they are not caused by that state’s army, which is totally committed to the principle of civilian control of the military. The absence of a written constitution, the multiplicity of political parties, proportional representation, the constant reliance on party coalitions to form Israeli governments, the absence of separation between synagogue and state, the socioeconomic disparities between Arab Israelis and Jewish Israelis, the self-perpetuation of ageing politicians (Labor’s Shimon Peres is 82), and a civilian bureaucracy that is as bloated as it is inefficient — all this is due to the civilians who built and govern Israel and not to the army, its leaders, its power, or its mission.

Nevertheless, there are still questions to ask about Israeli democracy. Are there too many generals in politics? Do they indeed threaten civilian control of the military? Is it still true that decisions about when and where to go to war, when to wait, whom to strike, and when and with whom to make peace are political decisions made by the civilian politicians? Has Israel become, in Harold Lasswell’s seminal phrase, a typical "garrison state" like Prussia? Or has it, in my phrase, become a "democratic garrison state?" And if it is the latter, then "How democratic is its democratic garrison state?"

The best answers to these questions were given to me by two prominent Israelis, one civilian and the other military. Dr. Yitzhak Nebenzahl, the State Comptroller and Ombudsman and member of the government commission that investigated Zahal’s intelligence failure prior to the Yom Kippur War, said: "If the Americans after World War II could make General George Marshall at one time Secretary of State and at another time Secretary of Defence - and if General Dwight Eisenhower could later become Mr President Eisenhower without any damage to civilian control of the American military - I don’t see any great danger if some of our ex-generals become prime ministers and politicians." (And, if one moves to the present era, Nebenzahl’s assessment applies to contemporary soldier-statesmen like Likud’s Ariel Sharon on the right and his immediate predecessor Labor’s Ehud Barak on the left.)

But the more poignant response about the military and Israeli democracy came from Colonel Yosef Caleff, the Army Spokesman in the early 1970s, "If I tell my men to march with me to Damascus, they’ll follow me blindly. But if I order them to stage a coup and take over the Knesset, the Prime Minister’s Bureau, the President’s Residence, the Supreme Court Building, the newspapers, and the radio and television stations, they will just stand there and laugh at me."

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