Do former generals have a place in politics?

Generals in the Cabinet Room: How the Military Shapes Israeli Policy, By Yoram Peri.

gneral book 88 298 (photo credit: )
gneral book 88 298
(photo credit: )
Generals in the Cabinet Room: How the Military Shapes Israeli Policy By Yoram Peri United States Institute of Peace Press 327 pages; $50 This book was published last year and, technically at least, the review is overdue. Since the book came out, the Second Lebanon War started and ended, chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Dan Halutz resigned, the most "civilian" of defense ministers, Amir Peretz, lost his seat and former chief of General Staff and prime minister Ehud Barak has now taken his place. The Winograd Commission has delivered its preliminary report, highlighting much that is awry in the relationship between the IDF high command and its political "masters," incidentally echoing many of the conclusions in this book. So despite the fact that a second edition now seems in order, Generals in the Cabinet Room is a timely and relevant tome. Indeed it is surprising how little resonance the book has had here, especially in a period when the skewed military-political balance has become such an acute issue. Peri doesn't accept the view in Western left-wing and radical academic circles that Israel is a militarized society. On the contrary, he stresses the success of the young state in promoting a vibrant and open democracy, despite being forced to fight a series of wars and to maintain a large conscript army. But as he admits, the deep involvement of the IDF in the political process, and the heavy presence of former senior officers in the ruling echelons have shaped government and policy. The fact that out of 18 chiefs of General Staff only four did not enter politics after leaving the IDF and that three of the last five elected prime ministers (Yitzhak Rabin, Barak and Ariel Sharon) were former generals, leaves a lot to be explained. David Ben-Gurion, the first prime minister and the founder of the IDF, realized the importance of keeping the army out of politics and politics out of the army. For that reason he disbanded the Palmah, the main fighting force of the pre-independence Hagana, to the deep consternation of many in the officer corps who had grown up in it. But Ben-Gurion knew that the Palmah's ties to the then influential left-wing party Mapam would completely politicize the new national army. Peri argues that throughout the 1950s and early '60s, the IDF underwent a period of gradual depoliticization and that despite its central place in society, it was largely insulated from the political turmoil in the civilian sphere. In 1957, the highly popular chief of General Staff Moshe Dayan, already then a political player, tried to defy Ben-Gurion and argued against the decision to retreat from the Sinai Peninsula captured in the 1956 campaign. Dayan was allowed even to address Knesset members in an attempt to sway them, but the prime minister ruled the day, and in the following decade the IDF was run by an increasingly professional officer corps. IT ALL changed in 1967. Many historians believe that the anger among the General Staff at prime minister Levi Eshkol's hesitancy to launch a preemptive attack was the closest Israel has ever been to a military coup. It was certainly a major factor in Eshkol's reluctant decision to appoint Dayan defense minister on the eve of the Six Day War. After the war everything changed for the IDF. It was suddenly thrust into the role of arbitrator on the main question that has dominated Israeli politics in the four decades since - the future of the territories captured in the war. Here Peri might be drawing the not-exactly-original conclusion that the occupation is at the root of all our troubles, but whatever your position on the issue, you cannot argue with the fact that the post-1967 situation has transformed the military's role from one in which it principally prepared for battle with the surrounding nations' armies to a job definition that includes managing the civilian affairs in the West Bank and until lately the Gaza Strip and being the main player in controversial confrontations both with the Palestinians and the Jewish settlers. In such a framework, clashes between generals and ministers were inevitable. Peri singles out five such incidents. The first two involved chief of General Staff Mordechai Gur, who steadfastly opposed prime minister Rabin's instructions in 1975 that soldiers forcibly evict the Gush Emunim settlers in Sebastia. Rabin backed down, but Peri, who was his adviser, claims that he never forgave Gur and blamed him for laying the foundations of the hundreds of settlements eventually built with the IDF's acquiescence. Two years later, Gur was once again at loggerheads with a prime minister - this time Menachem Begin - when he was openly skeptical of Anwar Sadat's peace overtures and opposed any concession to what he saw as Egyptian trickery. This time he was overruled. The next chief of General Staff to seriously get on the politicians' nerves was Dan Shomron, who seemed to be stepping over the line when he said after the outbreak of the first intifada that there was no military solution, only a diplomatic one. Though he hadn't opposed any specific order, he was deemed especially by the right-wing as being out of order. Ironically, Shomron is one of the few chiefs of General Staff never to have gone in to politics. His successor, Ehud Barak, widely regarded as the most "political" chief of General Staff since Dayan, clashed with Rabin over the security arrangements in the Oslo Accords, famously likening them to Swiss cheese. Six years later, it was Barak, by this time prime minister, who faced off with army chief Shaul Mofaz, who objected to the unilateral withdrawal from the security zone in southern Lebanon. Although obeying orders, he let his displeasure be known by saying that "the IDF doesn't choose its missions." Despite the fact that Gur's and Barak's objections could be portrayed as coming from the Right, they both joined Labor shortly after leaving the army. This might seem to bolster Peri's view that a majority of the generals essentially belong to the old establishment - conservative, Zionist and just very slightly left-of-center. And that of course is a good thing, in Peri's eyes at least, for he is as establishment as you can get. Now the head of communication and media studies at Tel Aviv University, his professional past includes both advising senior Labor politicians and the editorship of Labor's now defunct daily paper, Davar. THIS BOOK, his latest in a series of academic tomes on Israeli politics, is full of valuable insights and interesting historic detail, but Peri's partisanship shines through much of it and is the source of a number of weaknesses. His view of the army's upper echelon is essentially a positive one, though not without criticism. Its main problem is that he tends to see the Israeli military class in a rather one-dimensional and outmoded way. For most of its existence, the General Staff has embodied, with few exceptions, a Mapai/Labor outlook of political moderation and mainstream Zionist realism. Like senior civil servants, the generals in Peri's book are interested first and foremost in the nation's security and well-being; he sees no ulterior motives in their actions. Peri acknowledges their overinvolvement in "civilian" affairs, but is convinced that the blame should be laid at the feet of the politicians and, of course, the security situation and the occupation. When the ruling government is weak and indecisive, the generals feel they have no choice but to fill the vacuum. When the prime minister knows his mind, they might grumble, but ultimately they carry out orders. Peri brings just one significant example of the IDF really meddling in politics, in the run-up to the 1999 elections when a large group of retired generals rallied around Barak's campaign in what he terms a "democratic putsch" to remove Binyamin Netanyahu from power. This chapter is one of the low points of the book for three main reasons. First, Netanyahu might have had a rocky relationship with the IDF high command upon assuming the premiership in 1996; he famously remarked of them that "they have to change their disc now." But the tension was mainly between him and chief of General Staff Amnon Lipkin-Shahak. By the elections, Shahak was gone and the relationship with his successor, Mofaz, was much more cordial. Second, the enlistment of a large number of retired senior officers in a political cause is not that rare, and even if in this case there were more of them than usual, they can hardly be said to have carried out any kind of putsch. Netanyahu by that stage was so unpopular among the general public that he would have lost the election anyway. Third, Peri's personal animosity toward Bibi is so clear as to render his judgment on this subject invalid. His previous book, Telepopulism, was essentially a one-sided portrayal of Netanyahu as a demonic manipulator of the media. Likewise, his view of the IDF as having a generally responsible and moderating influence on the government doesn't jibe with the examples he himself brings, especially the gung-ho attitude of the army in the second intifada. It seems as if he is incapable of letting go of the idealized image of the high command as he saw it years ago. Peri fails to see the major social changes that have transformed the officer corps over the past three decades in which representatives of the "other Israel" have risen through the ranks, gradually changing also the social makeup of the General Staff. This outdated perspective also leads Peri to greatly exaggerate the size and effect achieved by the various letters and campaigns calling upon soldiers and officers not to carry out orders connected to the battle against the Palestinian organizations. The following sentence is the best giveaway: "Under the surface, there was a huge mass of gray objection, of discontent in the civilian sector, especially in that segment from which the reserve forces were drawn." Which segment is that? The secular, left-wing, middle-class intelligentsia obviously - they were the ones signing the petitions. Peri clearly has not done reserve duty in a combat unit for at least two decades; if he had, he would have known not to make such a sweeping generalization about the part of the population that does reserve duty. The segment he is referring to has long ago become a distinct minority in the reserve units. Similarly, he gets excited about the much over-publicized "pilots' letter" against the "targeted killing" of Palestinian leaders. He describes the signatories as coming from the "heart of hearts of the security establishment," though even he has to admit that only nine of them were still actively flying in the air force reserve. It should be added that none of them were involved in "targeted killing" missions, so their protest had no effect. The entire intifada objector movement amounted to no more than a few hundred reservists, many of them not even active reservists in combat units. It had little real effect besides the headlines. There were much more significant changes in the IDF's standing within Israeli society that don't warrant much mention in the book. Another glaring omission is in the chapter describing chief of General Staff Moshe Ya'alon's showdown with Sharon that led to his unprecedented firing. Peri explains at length Ya'alon's advocacy of offering the Palestinians a "political horizon" at the same time as fighting against the intifada and his support for negotiations with Syria. These positions are given as the grounds for his dismissal, but for some reason Peri doesn't mention another source of disagreement - Ya'alon's steadfast opposition to the unilateral pullback from the Gaza Strip. Despite these weaknesses and its barely concealed partisanship, this book is essential reading for anyone interested in understanding a major aspect of Israeli politics. Peri's conclusion that Israel is in dire need of a strong civilian-headed National Security Council, which will greatly improve the government's ability to make crucial decisions, was echoed almost identically by the Winograd Commission as the main lesson from the failings of the Second Lebanon War.