Middle Israel: What should Israel's retired generals do?

MOST GENERALS entered and exited politics, leaving no imprint; many departed bitter and disillusioned, from Labor’s Ami Ayalon to Kadima’s Shaul Mofaz.

August 9, 2019 06:56
MOSHE DAYAN and Ariel Sharon in 1973. The trickle became a deluge after the Six Day War

MOSHE DAYAN and Ariel Sharon in 1973. The trickle became a deluge after the Six Day War. (photo credit: REUTERS)

‘You have saved us from the Midianites,” said the grateful “men of Israel” to the victorious Gideon while demanding what Israelis so often demand of their own generals: “Rule over us” (Judges 8:22).

The Israeli habit was launched as early as 1955, when Maj.-Gen. (res.) Yigal Alon, who commanded the Palmah units that decided the War of Independence, was elected to the Knesset, while Maj.-Gen. (res.) Moshe Carmel, who commanded the Galilee’s conquest, became transport minister.

Joined in 1959 by Lt.-Gen. (res.) Moshe Dayan, who became agriculture minister, the trickle became a deluge after the Six Day War, with 12 of 15 retired lieutenant-generals identifying politically, eight of them becoming ministers and two becoming prime ministers, besides Ariel Sharon, who was a major-general.

This is besides eight retired generals who served as defense ministers, four as foreign ministers, two as presidents, and yet more as ministers of industry, infrastructure, communications, transport, science and whatnot.

The trend that was started by David Ben-Gurion was joined the following decade by Menachem Begin, when he made Maj.-Gen. (res.) Ezer Weizman transport minister, and later also by the National Religious Party when it crowned as its leader Brig.-Gen. (res.) Effi Eitam. Now the trend has reached Meretz, which recruited Maj.-Gen. (res.) Yair Golan.

There is no Western equivalent to this migration.

The precedents of de Gaulle in France and several American presidents are exceptional. In Britain, no general has been prime minister since 1834.

Yes, we have our circumstances. The IDF might find itself fighting any day, and its commanders should arrive in the battlefield relatively young and energized. That’s why the IDF retires its generals at about 50.

Then again, the IDF’s retired generals retire too old to join many fields outside politics. Lt.-Gen. (res.) Yigael Yadin’s remarkable academic career as an archaeologist was possible because he left the military at 35, not at 50-something. Academics are by that age tenured professors. Politics, by contrast, can be joined at midlife. That doesn’t make it an Israeli general’s best second career.

MOST GENERALS entered and exited politics, leaving no imprint; many departed bitter and disillusioned, from Labor’s Ami Ayalon to Kadima’s Shaul Mofaz.

Some also brought disaster. Such were the imprints of Dayan, Sharon, Yitzhak Rabin and Ehud Barak as the defense ministers whose narrow political horizons bred, respectively, the Yom Kippur War, the First Lebanon War, and the first and second intifadas.

No, not all generals were failed politicians. Major-generals Amram Mitzna and Shlomo Lahat were exemplary mayors of Haifa and Tel Aviv, respectively.

Lt.-Gen. (res.) Moshe Ya’alon, as defense minister, created a multi-annual formula for defense spending, and thus ended the seasonal bouts between the Treasury and the IDF (until his successor undid his reform).

Ya’alon is also different in that he actually studies civilian problems such as education, health and transportation. Most of our generals, alas, remain emotionally attached to defense and foreign affairs, thus bearing no social gospel.

Politics, in short, is not what most generals should do. There are other parts of life where their talents can be put to better work; industry, for instance.

Lt.-Gen. Mordechai Maklef (res.) excelled during 23 years as CEO of the Dead Sea Works, and after that of Israel Chemicals. Others were efficient business leaders, like Maj.-Gen. (res.) Menachem Einan, who oversaw the Azrieli Group’s dramatic expansion and its shares’ initial public offering during 19 years as the real-estate corporation’s CEO.

The authority, confidence and poise generals bring to their second careers can be priceless in such settings, where much of what makes most generals unsuitable for politics – like the need to feel people’s emotions and the daily bargaining with colleagues, superiors and underlings – is less relevant.

Even so, the sector where generals would contribute most and feel best is not in business either. It’s in the growing nonprofit sector, where they can make very good things happen while creating something out of nothing.

Here is one case in point.

MAJ.-GEN. (res.) Doron Almog, the first commando to storm out of the Hercules that landed at Entebbe, remains a paratrooper, head to toe.

Looking half his 68 years, the stocky, fatless and battle-tested warrior had seen countless battlefields where he lost some of his closest buddies as well as a beloved brother, before he was confronted by an enemy for which no intelligence briefing prepared him.

“Shame,” he now identifies that enemy, referring to what people feel when told – as he and his wife, Didi, were in 1984 – that their baby, Eran, would never be normal, in his case due to a combination of brain damage and severe autism. “Your son,” they were told, “will never speak to you, or indeed say anything.”

“I decided I won’t be ashamed,” recalls Almog. He wasn’t. The general and his wife did not do what others did in such situations, which was to send such a child to an institution, often abroad.

The couple raised Eran and, at the same time, raised funds and established on the desert’s edge a rehabilitation village for disabled children, the modernly equipped and handsomely designed Aleh Negev campus outside Ofakim, where 750 doctors, nurses, therapists, social workers and volunteers treat 140 residents.

Eran enjoyed the village for only several months, having died at 23, 16 years after his sister, Shoham, died of heart failure 30 days after she was born.

Doron (whose third child is an education professor) is thankful, despite the tragedies he endured. “Eran taught me what love is,” he says.

Patting teenaged patients and greeting them by name while strolling through the village now known as Nahalat Eran, Gen. Almog surveys his creation’s playgrounds, clinics, manicured lawns and ultramodern hydrotherapy pool, and finally says in military succinctness: “This is happiness.”

How many of the generals flocking to politics will ever say that about their own second careers?

The writer’s best-selling Mitz’ad Ha’ivelet Hayehudi (The Jewish March of Folly, Yediot Sfarim, 2019), is an interpretation of the Jewish people’s political history.


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