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.
GENERALS TAKE OVER POLITICS
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).
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.
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.
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
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.
printable version of this article
was born in the Netherlands in 1964 and has grown up in Israel.
He has B.A. in Computer Science, M.A. in Comparative Literature
and he presently works on his PhD thesis. He lives in Tel-Aviv,
teaches in the Department of Comparative Literature in Tel-Aviv
University. He also works as literary translator (from German, English
and Dutch), and as a literary critic for the Israeli daily Yedioth
Achronoth. His work has been published widely in Israel. His
column appears monthly at Antiwar.com.
State of the Army, Part 1
Left Sells Out Peace
IS RUNNING THE COUNTRY?
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.
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."
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
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
– 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,"
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
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?
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
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,"
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.
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