Civil-Military Relations in Israel: Not So Civil

Popular commentary in the US in recent weeks has drawn attention to the very public bickering in Israel between former security/military leaders and civilian politicians. Many seem surprised at such a development: Daniel Drezner argues that “it’s a sign that there’s a problem with Israeli democracy” when ex-military leaders assert privilege over policymaking.

My guess—since I haven’t read them all—is that few of the reports on the issue contain reference to the fact that this is a longstanding pattern in Israeli politics. Certainly it may well cause problems for Benjamin Netanyahu’s re-election—but because Bibi has tried to build his appeal on keeping Israel secure, and not because it’s senior security officials engaging in political commentary.

Lest we think that the current round of dissent is anything new or even drastic, it’s worth recalling that during the nerve-wracking crisis leading to the 1967 war, in the face of Prime Minister Levi Eshkol’s perceived wavering, some senior military officials mused about a temporary coup in order to press ahead with a military strike on the Arab states. In his 2006 book, Generals in the Cabinet Room, Yoram Peri argues that Netanyahu himself was defeated in 1999 in a “democratic putsch,” as a result of a concerted effort by serving and retired officers who feared his anti-peace policies were endangering the country.

It defies the normative expectations of Western liberals and democrats, but Israeli politics and society is heavily securitized. Israel’s second Chief of Staff, Yigael Yadin, famously said that “every civilian is a soldier on eleven months annual leave.” Indeed, the distinction between civilian and military leaders is hard to determine: many of the latter move quickly into politics once their service is finished; and which political party they will join (or form) becomes an open discussion long before their tenures in the security establishment are over. A partial list would include Ehud Barak, Ariel Sharon, Yitzhak Rabin, Shaul Mofaz, Yitzhak Mordechai, Moshe Dayan, Amnon Lipkin-Shahak, Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, Rafael Eitan, Moshe Ya’alon, and Rehavam Ze’evi.

In the early years of the state, the IDF also played a critical role in the processes of state- and nation-building in the country, functioning as an ostensible civilian institution. It taught Hebrew to new immigrants to the country and socialized them into emerging Israeli norms, built homes for citizens, and set up and populated new settlements around the country.

David Ben-Gurion, the country’s first Prime Minister, best reflected this practice when he pronounced that defending the state was not the only function of the military: it must also “serve as an educational and pioneering center for Israeli youth—for both those born here and newcomers.”

Thus the deep involvement of the military and security agencies in Israeli life led to the incorporation of “security” as a premier value at the individual and the collective level. 64 years after the creation of the state this continues to be the reality of the country.


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