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The Military in Political Life

The Jewish military organizations of Palestine before Israeli independence were fiercely political. The Haganah and Palmach were closely associated with socialist-labor Mapai (see Appendix B) and the kibbutz programs, whereas the Irgun was intimately connected with the right-wing Revisionist Zionism of Vladimir Jabotinsky and his disciple, Begin (see Revisionist Zionism , ch. 1). As the chief architect of the IDF, Ben-Gurion was determined to eliminate all political overtones from Israel's unified, national army and to establish clear civilian supremacy over the military. He was extraordinarily successful in his efforts in that during the first forty years of its history the IDF never overtly challenged the authority of the civilian government. This did not mean, however, that the IDF was a nonpolitical institution. On the contrary, in the late 1980s the political impact of the armed forces remained pervasive and profound. IDF officers influenced government foreign affairs and national security policy through official and unofficial channels. Under Ben-Gurion's successor, Levi Eshkol, the political system was opened to permit greater interaction between the civilian leadership and the military high command. The shift permitted the chief of staff to advance the views of the IDF directly to the cabinet and Knesset committees. The growing number of former officers in political life also helped to legitimate the involvement of the military in strategic policy debates.

Under Israeli law, the cabinet, which could be convened as the Ministerial Committee for Security Affairs in order to enforce the secrecy of its proceedings, set policy relating to national security. The Foreign Affairs and Security Committee of the Knesset approved national security policy. The minister of defense often was the principal policy formulator (although this depended on his personality and the personalities of the prime minister and the chief of staff) and could make decisions without consulting fellow cabinet members if an urgent need arose. During the first twenty years of Israel's existence, membership in the ruling Labor Party often was a prerequisite for appointment to a high level staff position. Political qualifications for top assignments gradually declined in importance during the 1970s, although the chief of staff's perceptions of Israel's security were necessarily consonant with the aims of the government.

When Prime Minister Begin served as his own minister of defense from 1980 to 1981, his chief of staff, Lieutenant General Rafael Eitan, could assert the IDF position not only on defense matters but also on foreign policy and economic questions. When Sharon--a retired major general highly respected within the officer corps-- became defense minister in 1981, the focus of decision making in both defense and foreign policy shifted to him. The minister of defense after 1984, Rabin, also was a retired officer. Under him, the balance of authority continued to rest with the Ministry of Defense as opposed to the military establishment; however, Rabin did not exercise the monopoly of control that had existed under Sharon.

Although considered primarily the implementer of policy, the IDF influenced many sectors of society. It had a major voice in strategic planning, in such social matters as education and the integration of immigrants, and in the government's role in the occupied territories. Moreover, the enormous impact of the defense establishment on the economy made its claims on the nation's resources of major political significance.

The high command had ample opportunity to convey its views to the civilian leadership. The chief of staff and the chief of military intelligence met regularly with the Committee on Foreign Affairs and Security and the Finance Committee of the Knesset. The chief of staff participated regularly in cabinet meetings and gave opinions on government security policy. The setbacks at the outset of the October 1973 War gave rise to an exceptional period when senior officers influenced political decisions through their contacts with members of the cabinet and the Knesset. The situation was complicated by the involvement of former senior officers who had entered political life and who served as reserve officers in the war. A committee created to investigate the errors committed during the first days of the war led to the enactment in 1976 of the new Basic Law: the Army governing the IDF. The government expended much effort to redefine the roles of the prime minister, minister of defense, and chief of staff. The new legal requirements, however, proved less important than the personalities of the individuals holding those positions at any given time.

Private consultations with the high command were viewed as essential in light of the cabinet's need to be informed on security issues. Public statements of opinion concerning Israel's defense policy (such as when and where to go to war, or when, how, or with whom to make peace) were generally considered to be in the realm of politics and improper for active-duty personnel. It became clear that many senior officers had moral and political reservations over the scope and tactics employed in the 1982 invasion of Lebanon, but their dissent did not escalate into open protest. One exception was the highly controversial case of Colonel Eli Geva, who asked to be relieved of his command when his brigade was given the mission of leading the army's entry into Beirut, an act that was bound to cause many civilian casualties. Many officers regarded Geva's conduct as outright insubordination. Others agreed that it was proper for him to decline the performance of his military obligations when they conflicted with his conscience. In spite of his outstanding record as a combat leader, Geva was released from further service.

Members of the IDF could vote and engage in normal political activity, albeit with certain restraints. They could join political parties or politically oriented groups and attend meetings, but they were barred from taking an active role as spokespersons either for the IDF or for a political group. Analysts found little difference between the political orientation of military personnel and of civilians. Retired officers entering politics were not concentrated in a particular part of the political spectrum. Few officers were associated with the small minority of groups upholding autocratic political values. Most appeared to accept unreservedly the prevailing democratic political culture. Compared with most countries, Israel had far less separatism, distinction between life styles, or social distance between civilians and the officer corps.

The vast majority of the citizenry did not regard the practice of retired officers "parachuting into politics" as threatening to civilian control of the military. No ex-IDF officer had assumed a cabinet position until 1955, and not until after the June 1967 War did it become a common practice. Israeli law prohibited retired officers from running for the Knesset until 100 days after their retirement, but no such law existed regarding cabinet positions.

Retired officers pursuing political careers were likely to be called back to active duty because retired officers remained reserve officers until age fifty-five. The problems that eventually could arise became apparent in 1973, when Major General Sharon retired in July to join the opposition Likud Party only to be recalled to active duty during the October 1973 War. Sharon was highly critical of the conduct of the war, becoming the most vocal participant in the so-called War of the Generals, in which a number of active, retired, and reserve general officers engaged in a public debate over the management of the war for several months during and after the hostilities. Sharon was elected to the Knesset in the December 1973 elections. Once there, he continued to criticize government policy while he remained a senior reserve officer. As a result of this situation, the government barred Knesset members from holding senior reserve appointments.

Despite the prominence and visibility of former military officers at the highest level of government, former officers have not formed a cohesive and ideologically united group. Although two of the most prominent military figures of the period, Sharon and Eitan (chief of staff from 1978 to 83) were regarded as right wing on Arab-Israeli issues, many more senior officers were moderates, less persuaded than the Likud government or the public that military force was the answer.

There has been little evidence of an identifiable military or officer caste dedicated to protecting the army's own interests. Militarism was deeply antithetical to the democratic, civilian-oriented concept of Israeli society held by the vast majority of Israelis. Society has, however, held prominent military personalities in high esteem and treated them as national heroes. This was particularly true after the stunning victory of the June 1967 War. After the near disaster in 1973 and the controversies surrounding operations in Lebanon in 1982, however, the prestige of the professional military suffered. The Lebanon experience raised in its most acute form the question of how effectively the civilian government could control the military establishment. IDF operations ordered by Sharon and Eitan often had been contrary to the government's decisions and the cabinet had been kept ignorant of the military situation. The cabinet's inability to oppose effectively Sharon and Eitan was made possible by the passive attitude of Prime Minister Begin, the relative lack of operational military experience among other cabinet ministers, and the deliberate manipulation of reports on the fighting. For a time, the checks and balances that had previously prevented the defense establishment from dominating the civilian decision-making authority seemed in jeopardy. Political protest arose in the government, among the public, in the news media, and even in sectors of the army that forced a reassessment of the actions of the military leadership. Although no structural changes were introduced, Sharon was removed from the Ministry of Defense and a more normal pattern of military-civilian relations was restored. In 1988, Chief of Staff Shomron, Deputy Chief of Staff Major General Ehud Barak, and West Bank Commander Major General Amrah Mitzna, all were perceived to be political liberals. They were, however, careful not to draw attention in public to possible differences with the government over its handling of the uprising in the occupied territories.

Data as of December 1988

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