November 14, 2002

Israel Elections. So What.

Elections in the Middle East do not usually attract too much attention in the international media. Who remembers the recent elections in Iraq or in Syria? And who cares? Exceptions to this rule are Turkey and Israel: both countries are considered democracies, even though the concept of democracy needs considerable fixing and bending to be applied to either. Indeed, both countries have a multi-party system; but both have a long undemocratic tradition of oppressing ethnic minorities (up to 1966, Arab Israelis were held under military regime; since a year later Israel has been ruling millions of Palestinians deprived of nationality and voting rights), and both are to a large extent ruled by the army.

In Turkey there is full awareness to this anti-democratic tension between the elected parliament and the self-appointed military, and the conflicts are often played out in the open. In Israel the tensions between the Army and the elected leadership are almost completely covert, both because the army is a constant participant in the actual leadership, and because unlike in Turkey, in Israel there has not yet emerged even a single political actor that stands up against the army.

No matter how often IDF officers and spokespersons are caught in cover-ups, dirty intrigues and outright lies (their war-crimes are simply denied), no matter how much waste, carelessness and corruption any Israeli soldier sees whenever he is in the army, polls show that the Israeli public trusts and respects the army more than any other institution of the Jewish state, including the Knesset and the judicial system. In fact, the whole Israeli culture and identity is organised ever more around the army, with the obvious price of excluding Israeli Arabs (they don’t go to the army), discriminating against women (who serve a shorter period and in inferior jobs), and a general preference to solve problems by violence rather than by negotiations and compromise.

As an illustration, take the new television channel, "Israel Plus", which will air this week: Israel’s first national channel in the Russian language. The growing legitimacy given to the country’s multi-culturalism is laudable; but what replaces the Hebrew language and culture as social cement in a melting-pot? One look at the advertising poster of "Israel Plus" is enough to find out: it depicts a smiling young Israeli officer, in full uniform, hugging an elderly war veteran with dozens of Soviet medals on his chest. The message is clear: Russian grandpa was fighting the Nazis, Israeli grandson is fighting the Arabs, we all belong together because we are all soldiers (and our enemies are all Nazis).

Who Rules Israel

Cabinet, Knesset, parties etc. play a marginal role in Israel: they serve as democratic fig-leaves, to distract public attention from the actual centres of power, and to give comfortable jobs to those who serve the junta best, with retired officers over-represented all along the line (retiring officers usually "go shopping" among the bigger political parties and join the one that offers them most).

In fact, Israel is not run just by its elected government, but by a triumvirate consisting of the Chief of Staff (or the army top), the Prime Minister and the Defence Minister. It has been so for decades, but severed considerably in the last two years: the new Intifada radically changed the balance of power between cabinet and army in favour of the latter. Even a senior main-stream analyst like Ben Kaspit of Israel’s second-biggest daily Ma’ariv, who studied the subject and published two shocking articles (6.9.02, 13.9.02) on the extent to which the army had its own political agenda and imposed it on the cabinet, concludes: "Israel is not a state with an army, but an army with an affiliated state".

This fact is obscured by the relative lack of conflicts between the Army and the government – i.e., the two key ministers – simply because they are usually retired army generals themselves. Take the last few years: in 1999, former Chief of Staff General (ret.) Ehud Barak became both Prime Minister and Defence Minister simultaneously (Chief of Staff was Shaul Mofaz). He was succeeded last year by General (ret.) Ariel Sharon as Prime Minister and by General (ret.) Benyamin Ben Eliezer as Defence Minister. And last week, when the latter resigned, he was swiftly replaced by General (ret.) Shaul Mofaz, Chief of Staff just three months earlier. When, however, the cabinet musical chairs are taken by outsiders, things get rough: for example, Ben Kaspit reports that when Benjamin Netanyahu was Prime Minister, he demanded that the army make plans for withdrawal from occupied South Lebanon; the army, unwilling to co-operate with an elected Prime Minister who was not a retired general, refused and declined.

Do the Elections Give Hope?

So are the coming elections important or not? Well, they are definitely not very important, because only the political leadership will be elected and possibly changed, not the army top that shares power with it. If, however, one or two of the key cabinet positions fall into the hands of non-generals, it will be a good sign.

This perspective gives us a good tool to evaluate the coming primaries in both Labour and Likud. On one hand, we have the junta members trying to hold sway: in the Likud it is Sharon, in Labour – Ben Eliezer. If both retired generals are re-elected in their respective primaries, they are most likely to co-operate again after the elections, resuming the winning recipe that worked so well until last week: giving the army a free hand in its a murderous policy towards the Palestinians (and possibly Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Iran and any other enemy that the US would allow them to attack), backed by a soft Labour rhetoric on the propaganda front, especially abroad (with Shimon Peres, who was never a soldier but gave the Israeli junta the most precious gift of all – nuclear weapons – as an obedient spokesman).

On the other hand we have the "civilians". In Labour, where primaries are to be held on 19.11, Chaim Ramon and Amram Mitzna are challenging Ben Eliezer. Ramon, a man with no military record, a dangerous populist who has so far destroyed whatever he claimed to repair (most notably Israel’s strongest trade-union and Israel’s public health system), seems to lag behind in polls. Haifa’s mayor Amram Mitzna, the favourite candidate in current polls, has decisively taken dovish positions almost unheard of in Labour. He rejects the idea of "having no partner on the Palestinian side", spurns the cynical argument of "no negotiations under fire", and openly calls to dismantle settlements. Mitzna is indeed a retired general – which undoubtedly accounts for some of his popularity – but a general with a "stain": he asked to resign in protest after the massacre in the Palestinian refugee camps in Sabra and Shatila in 1982. Though Labour’s chances to win the elections do not look good at the moment, a victory for Mitzna in the primaries may shift public discourse considerably and help overcome the devastating, so far undisputed ideological legacy of Barak, who turned Israel and its supporters world-wide into a choir playing in unison the national anthem, in which God reigns in heaven but everything on earth is Arafat’s fault.

In the Likud, Netanyahu will be challenging Sharon in the 28.11 primaries. Risking the fury of most of my friends, I dare say that Netanyahu – who left the army as a junior officer with no real military carrier – was quite a good Prime Minister (not only in comparison to his disastrous successor Barak). Not that I subscribe for a single moment to his hawkish positions and extremist economic neo-liberalism – but because of his very weakness, due to having little or no backing from the army and from Israel’s established elite. His weakness at the top induced more pluralism at lower levels inside Israel, as well as more flexibility towards outside pressures; Netanyahu went the Oslo way, and even the settlements flourished considerably less in his time than under Barak. Due to his permanent defamation in the media, the return of Netanyahu is a nightmare for many Israeli liberals; I am more optimistic.

A victory for any of the challenging "civilians" will be a small victory over the army. The army will undoubtedly fight back and try to force the elected leadership to continue the present project of destroying the Palestinian people (operation "fighting terrorism"), hoping to drive them out sooner or later. The government will not risk confronting the army directly, but it might try to restrain it (and it might obey, or not). This is the hope in the coming elections, and these are its limits: a real change in Israel’s policy is unlikely. But breaking the bloody unison of Sharon/Ben Eliezer/Mofaz/Yaalon will be something of an achievement too.

– Ran HaCohen

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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 is currently working on his PhD thesis. He teaches in the Tel-Aviv University's Department of Comparative Literature. He also works as a literary translator (from German, English and Dutch), and as a literary critic for the Israeli daily Yedioth Achronoth. Mr. HaCohen's work has been published widely in Israel. "Letter from Israel" appears occasionally at

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