Into the Fray: Debating disobedience
Is the Likud once again planning to use the military to impose evacuations of Jewish communities? If not, why did it opt to make Bennett’s remark an issue of such centrality?
Naftali Bennett Photo: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post
Theirs not to make reply; Theirs not to reason why; Theirs but to do and die –
Alfred Tennyson, The Charge of the Light Brigade, 1854
Above all, the grand and
only effectual security against the despotism of the government is... the
sympathy of the army with the people.... Soldiers to whose feelings half or
three-fourths of the subjects of the same government are foreigners will have no
more scruple in mowing them down, and no more desire to ask the reason why, than
they would have in doing the same thing against declared enemies.... Such armies
have been the executioners of liberty through the whole duration of modern
history. – John Stuart Mill, On Representative Government, 1861
feeding frenzy sparked by Naftali Bennett’s remark made during a blatantly
antagonistic interview conducted by a blatantly adversarial interviewer, Nissim
Mishal, was depressingly revealing as to the quality of the county’s public
Demagoguery, hypocrisy, ignorance
The furor precipitated by
the browbeaten Bennett blurting out that he would ask his commanding officer to
exempt him from having to expel Israeli citizens from their homes vividly
underscores how badly tainted the debate on the crucial issue of military
discipline and the proper use of armed forces in a democratic society has
Propelled by partisan journalists and distortive journalism,
demagoguery and hypocrisy, dishonesty and ignorance have inflamed emotions to
such a degree that reasoned discussion is virtually impossible.
confusion that permeates public attitudes on the topic was clearly illustrated
by the diametrically antithetical responses Bennett’s comments elicited – from
the virtually wall-to-wall, Pavlovian-like condemnation from the main-stream
press and across the political spectrum, on the one hand, to the public
expression of defiant support from dozens of reserve officers in special forces
units, on the other.
Reflecting this confusion – and the resultant
misunderstanding – was the reaction of Education Minister Gideon Sa’ar: “Putting
your own worldview above democratic principles is very
problematic... following the rules of the democratic game is what keeps
But, when it comes to the moral legitimacy – as opposed to
the formal legality – of obeying/disobeying a military command, the question is
what are the proper “rules of the democratic game?”
There appears to be deep dissension regarding this question in Israel. In early
2005, prior to the Gaza disengagement, the popular website Ynet conducted a poll
among its readers on whether there was any difference in the insubordination of
the Right and of the Left.
The results were an almost 50-50 split between
those who believed there was a distinct difference, and those who did
These findings are disturbing. For, despite conventional wisdom,
there is a sharp, qualitative distinction of which half the population seemed
This is a difference that is not only substantive, in terms of
the political perceptions of the two sectors, but structural, in terms of their
compatibility with democratic norms.
This miscomprehension was reflected
in a recent op-ed piece by one of Sa’ar’s advisers, Eli Hazan, who lumped the
two together in an undifferentiated “circle of extremists.”
He wrote: “I
will refer to supporters of refusal, from both the Right and the Left, as the
‘circle of extremists,’ who refuse to understand that the principle they believe
in is both problematic and mostly illegitimate... because they are not willing
to accept the democratic principle in which the political leadership, elected
from time to time by the people, dictates policy, rather than the other way
Hazan has fallen into an error, common in the Israeli political
arena, regarding the nature of democratic governance. He is mistaken on at least
One relates to the general mandate electoral victory confers
on the political leadership; the other to the legitimate use that can be made of
the military in democratic societies.
The nature of democratic mandate
Victory at the polls does not provide elected leaders carte blanche, permitting
them unrestrained discretion to the end of their allotted tenure. They are not
free to adopt any policy/measure that takes their fancy, but are – or should be
– bound to fulfill their pledges to the electorate, at least within the limits
Clearly, it is unreasonable to expect an elected government to
implement everything it promised in its election campaign, and to refrain from
anything it did not. However, when an elected government (such as the Sharon
administration) reneges on the central plank of it electoral platform, or worse,
adopts the rejected policy of its defeated rival, which it urged the voters to
oppose, it is the government – despite its electoral success – that is violating
“the rules of the democratic game,” not the people who resist that
This phenomenon of blatant breaches is a far greater danger to
the democratic system than alleged allegiance to rabbinical directives over
After all, to permit an incumbent regime limitless
flexibility in policy-making, and a sweeping release from its commitments to it
voters, is to empty the democratic process of any substance, spread apathy and
alienation across the electorate, and destroy the belief that participating in
the electoral process has any merit.
For what is the point in voting, if
upon winning the election, politicians promptly embrace the program of defeated
rivals, which was rejected by the voters? This virtually guarantees the decline
and decay of the democratic process. For once citizens begin losing faith in its
value, it is only a matter of time until “alternative” forms of governance begin
to garner support.
Right’s rage and rebellion
It has been repeated
repudiation of hawkish electoral pledges and subsequent adoption of defeated
dovish polices that have, to a large degree, comprised the sources of rage and
rebellion among the ranks of the Right.
It is this rage, this sense of
unabashed betrayal and cynical exploitation, that has in significant measure
ignited the spark of insubordination on the Right.
This has clearly not
been the case with regard to the Left, which has yet to be faced with similarly
spectacular political U-turns by its elected representatives.
fearful for the fate of democracy in Israel must remember: There is a limit to
the disdain that elected leaders can manifest towards their voters, a limit to
violations of their electoral pledges, that once crossed, strips a regime of the
moral authority to demand the compliance of the citizenry, a limit beyond which
insubordination is no longer an unacceptable transgression, but a democratic
It is crucial to note that the preceding analysis, and the
conclusions drawn from it, regarding the limits of civil compliance has nothing
to do with the specific of the political opinions of a particular political
faction, but with the general principles of conduct of elected governments, and
the duty they owe their citizens.
Political science not rabbinical decree
No less important is that, while religious beliefs undeniably have played a role
in engendering a spirit of rebellion in the Israeli Right, much of the rationale
underlying the impulse for insubordination can be found in the precepts of
political science, rather than in the rabbinical decrees of prominent religious
But in assessing motivations for insubordination in democratic
societies, another weighty consideration, which is routinely glossed over in the
political discourse in Israel, must be addressed. This relates to the proper
function of the military in democratic society and the constraints on democratic
governments in employing it against its citizens.
This goes beyond a
discussion of individual conscientious objectors and focuses not so much on what
a private citizen should be permitted to do, but on what a democratic government
should be prevented from doing.
It is, of course, true that, in general,
a democratic nation’s military cannot function effectively without imposition of
strict discipline and the overall subjugation of the military, as an
organization, to the control of civilian government. Indeed, it is not for the
armed forces to “reason why” or “make reply,” but “to do and die.”
however, is only a partial prescription.
Role of the military in
For it is equally true that, in a functioning democracy, the proper
role of the armed forces is to defend the country and its citizens against
external enemies, not to enforce domestic government policy on its
Imposing government policy on civilians is a task for the
law-enforcement authorities, chiefly the police.
True, the military has
been employed within the frontiers of democratic nations, but this typically has
been, or should be, confined to responses to disasters, such as floods,
earthquakes and other natural calamities, in which the civilian authorities lack
the necessary expertise and/or resources to cope adequately. This use of the
military is precipitated not by purposeful government policy initiatives but the
unexpected ravages of nature, and its objective is to aid citizens in distress,
not to enforce the will of the incumbent regime on them.
initiatives induce such fierce and far-ranging opposition that the regular
civilian law-enforcement agencies are inadequate to cope with it, it seems
eminently plausible to conclude that the government is acting with an
injudicious combination of insensitive arrogance and disregard for the core
values of significant portions of the population.
(In the Israeli
context, this is particularly perverse, since the potential source of
insurrection comes from sectors considered “natural” supporters, or at least
allies, of a Likud-led administration, and who helped it gain power, power, it
is now hinted, it might well use against them.) Indeed, the ability – or lack
thereof – of the civilian authorities to enforce government policy without the
aid of the army may well be a plausible criterion for assessing the legitimacy –
or lack thereof – of government initiatives.
Differentiating Left from
The preceding discussion provided the analytical tools to differentiate
between the insubordination manifested by Israel’s Left and its
While the existing law-enforcement machinery has been sufficient
to deal with the phenomenon on the left-wing, when it comes to the right-wing,
governments have felt it necessary – and, apparently, still do – to use the
military. And as John Stuart Mill, one of the pillars of liberal political
philosophy, observes, armies that have been used against significant segments of
the population run the risk of becoming “the executioners of
Furthermore, while left-wing insubordination involves the
refusal to participate in activities consistent with the proper use of the
military in democracies – contending with, or defending against, external foes,
right-wing insubordination entails refraining from participating in activities
that are inconsistent with such use – imposing the domestic policy of the regime
on its own citizens.
Likewise, left-wing insubordination imposes on
others the risky task of engaging hostile forces that the “objector” refuses to
take part in; right-wing insubordination comprises refraining from the
considerably less risky mission of coercing civilian compliance with regime
Too much to expect?
The roots of right-wing insubordination can
be traced to the 2005 disengagement. To a large degree, it was the product of a
twin travesty: (a) Blatantly and brutally undemocratic repudiation of electoral
pledges; and (b) flagrant misuse of the military.
Had the then-members of
the General Staff not been guilty of placing personal position above
professional principle, they would have not left the dilemma to the soldiers in
the ranks. They would have taken the moral lead; they would have, collectively,
reported to the minister of defense and informed him this was not an acceptable
mission with which to task the IDF and that therefore they wished to be
relieved, collectively, of their duties.
That they did not do this to a
man is deeply disappointing.
That not a man among them did so is deeply
disturbing. But such are the realities of public life in Israel.
more trenchant question
In light of the row over the Bennett incident, an even
more trenchant question arises: Is the Likud once again planning to use the
military to impose evacuations of Jewish communities? If not, why did it opt to
make Bennett’s remark an issue of such centrality? If it is, it is duty bound to
inform the public and its voters in particular of its intentions.
in turn, are duty bound to insist on an answer.
(www.martinsherman.net) is the founder and executive director of the Israel
Institute for Strategic Studies.