The State of the Army, Part 1

"In Israel, every human being is a soldier, and every soldier – a human being," went a famous old saying ascribed to David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s founder and first prime minister. In the pre-sound-bite era, when lengthy and complex slogans were tolerated, this was an effective phrasing to obscure the tension between Israel’s democratic self-image and its actual militaristic character.

No one uses this slogan anymore. As for its former part, not every Israeli citizen goes to the army nowadays; we shall elaborate on that in Part Two. As for its latter part, watching those human beings carrying out, say, "an engineering task" in Gaza – a dirty euphemism for bulldozing miserable slums in Palestinian refugee camps to make room for Israeli settlements – raises heavy doubts about their humanity. So it is high time for a few remarks on militarism versus democracy in Israel.


Let us look at a typical career of an Israeli general. It starts with conscription at the age of 18. In his early forties, after about 25 years in service, he is released with a generous pension. He usually holds a university degree, earned at ease during his service in special academic programmes for officers ("MA in Defence Studies" or similar distinguished disciplines): the universities are happy to contribute to the nation by compromising academic quality for the good money they get from the army (and some university presidents are themselves former generals).

Now our General can choose. If he likes, he can get a well-paid top position in the public or private sector. For nobody can deny that if he could send soldiers to the front, he can make an excellent business manager too. Otherwise, he can join politics. No one would deny that his military experience qualifies him perfectly for a leading position in the democratic system. If he is clever, he has already used his various military positions to develop media skills and make friends with journalists, well aware of the importance of "exposure" for his public career. The political parties compete among themselves on conscripting as many generals as possible; our General will have job-talks with several parties. Convictions are seldom a problem: since our General was not allowed to expose his personal convictions when in the army, he most likely does not have any; at any rate, tuning his convictions to those of the better party (the one that offers him most) is definitely preferable to having solid convictions in advance.

It is difficult to think of a prominent Israeli politician who is not a retired officer. Benjamin Netanyahu, "just" a colonel in an elite unit, is almost a humble exception; Prime Minister Sharon, Defence Minister Ben Eliezer, former Prime Minister Barak, and former Prime Minister Rabin were all retired generals, to name just a few. Generals are not confined to the Ministry of Defence or to the prime minister’s office: currently, the Ministers of Transportation (Sneh), of Science, Culture and Sport (Vilnai), of Tourism (Ze’evy) and a Minister without Portfolio (Tarif) are all retired generals.

Israeli leadership thus shows an impressive continuity and cohesion. Sharon, Rabin and Ze’evy all served under Ben-Gurion. When Sharon as Defence Minister invaded Lebanon in 1982, Barak was his favourite General. And who was in command of the special elite unit when the young officer Netanyahu was serving there? Ehud Barak, of course. It is a clique with its own language, manners and codes. They see Israeli society as a battalion of half-baked recruits who should be manipulated to suit their commander. Having spent their formative years in the field, their societal and economic understanding verges on zero, their cultural interest is null. Their image of the Arabs has been formed in long years of observing them though the rifle’s sight. Every problem can be solved by force, and, as the soldiers’ saying goes, "where force won’t do, use even more force." Their first commandment is: never give up land. No wonder that the only Israeli prime minister who paid a real price for peace – returning the entire Sinai Desert to Egypt – was Menachem Begin, who was not a general and not part of the militaristic clique. Rabin and his followers did not give up land: they just relegated it to a Palestinian subcontractor.

The Generals often have a typical attitude towards women as well, derived from experiencing them always in subordinate positions – as their admiring young secretary in the army, for example. One of those Generals, Yizchak Mordechai, who ran for the office of prime minister in 1999, was convicted last month of sexual abuse. The Jerusalem Magistrate Court found that Mordechai had “exploited his rank and position,” first as a general and then as a minister, to sexually abuse two women who were much younger than him, deploring his actions as “harmful, humiliating and perverse." If one still doubts the Generals’ position in Israel, being a clique beyond and above anything else, one should read the verdict. The Court "took into account" the military past of "the only general ever to have commanded all three of Israel’s fronts." "When a glorious career, body, and soul are smashed, the Court does not also have to destroy the individual with a deliberately severe punishment," the judges wrote mercifully (note whose "body and soul" were smashed – not those of the abused women!), and having convicted him of an offence for which the maximal penalty is 7 years in prison, they gave the retired General Mordechai an outrageously lenient 18-month suspended sentence.


Now all this may sound clear enough for insiders, but on the outside the democratic appearance must be kept up at all costs. Therefore, in his column in Ha’aretz of April the 24th, following Israel’s abortive incursion in Gaza, Ze’ev Schiff – Israel’s most senior military commentator – sounds rather alarmed.

"Has the government lost control of the IDF? Are the army and its activities genuinely under the supervision of the civil authority? These are questions the Americans have recently asked."

Schiff’s alarm is understandable. The reason for the US unconditional support to Israel is neither the American Jewish Lobby, nor a purported American commitment to moral values. The US supports Israel simply because it serves its interests as an American fortress in the Middle East. True, there are several other American "allies" in the region, but Israel is "our best ally" because Americans believe that Israel is a democratic state, and that a democracy is more reliable than non-democratic regimes like Egypt or Jordan. If the Americans start wondering just how democratic Israel really is, people like Schiff should be alarmed. Expectedly, Schiff hurries to echo the official propaganda line. Note the over-emphatic, almost hysterical tone:

"Throughout the history of the state of Israel, questions such as this have never – repeat, never – been asked about the relationship between Israel and its defense forces. Our friends, no less than our enemies, have always known there is no question about the elected Israeli government’s absolute control over the Israel Defense Forces. True, the army may not always have liked government decisions, nor have been happy with directives from the defense minister acting on behalf of government. But there has never been any doubt whatsoever of the IDF as a disciplined army that accepted civil authority without question."

"Never – repeat, never – been asked"?! Schiff’s memory seems to betray him. Sociologist Uri Ben-Eliezer dedicated a whole book to The Emergence of Israeli Militarism 1936-1956 (in Hebrew, 1995). The alleged subordination of the Israel’s military to the government was not only questioned, but rather convincingly answered. One of Ben-Eliezer’s conclusions is that Israel never experienced a military coup because the elected leadership adopted militarism as a central ideology and as a key element in its policy. Practically, whenever the army demands to take action, the government saves its skin by fulfilling such demands. In fact, Schiff himself describes this very process later on in his column, describing it as a "glitch," of course:

"During the Intifada, Barak received verbal and written complaints about the army’s use of excessive force contrary to orders. The complaints came from the security services, the Civil Administration, and the deputy defense minister, Ephraim Sneh – he was involved in all decisions on all operations. Barak’s response was generally lukewarm. He did not normally rebuke officers acting contrary to directives."

So this is the silent pact: the army generals may do whatever they like, as long as they pay lip-service to their retired colleagues in the government. Thus, journalist Ofer Shelach reported in Yedioth Achronoth (22.12.2000) that when Barak ordered to re-open the Palestinian airport in Gaza, the army formally complied – but sealed off all the roads leading to the airport. On another occasion, when an order to open a central highway was given, the army delayed it for several hours, until – "all of a sudden" – demonstrating settlers appeared and blocked the highway. Who understands it better than Barak, who as an officer cut off communication in order not to hear that the operation he was commanding had been canceled?

To sum up, Israel’s policy is set by Generals. No military coup will occur in Israel, simply because the Generals already run the country. All Generals, retired and active, share the same ideology, that holds democracy in contempt, supports the occupation, sanctifies the use of force and views any compromise as a sign of weakness. If there is a conflict between retired and active Generals, it is always the more militaristic line that wins. When Schiff – a loyal servant of the existing militaristic order – reiterates emphatically once more:

"As for the questions coming from Washington, it should be emphasized there is in fact no danger of the government losing control over the Army. While there have been a number of glitches, it would be a mistake to conclude the IDF is intentionally developing a tendency to disregard or ignore orders from the government,"

his words are explicitly aimed at American ears. Schiff knows very well: the democratic image of Israel is essential for getting American support, and American support is essential for maintaining Israel’s anti-democratic militarism. The US "special relationship" with Israel is thus based on a fiction. Mundus vult decipi, said Luther: the world wants to be deceived.

Author: Ran HaCohen

Dr. Ran HaCohen was born in the Netherlands in 1964 and grew up in Israel. He has a B.A. in computer science, an M.A. in comparative literature, and a Ph.D. in Jewish studies. He is a university teacher in Israel. He also works as a literary translator (from German, English, and Dutch). HaCohen's work has been published widely in Israel. "Letter From Israel" appears occasionally at