Two converging currents gathered strength this week, threatening to erode one of Israel’s most cherished ideals: the people’s army.
The attacks by coalition ministers, MKs, and others close to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, on the IDF top brass, including Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Herzi Halevi, represented one of those currents. The other was the haredi parties’ determination, made clear this week, to push forward with a bill during the next Knesset session that would exempt haredim from mandatory military service.
Just as powerful rivers can reshape the landscape over time, these converging forces may very well endanger the idea of the IDF as a people’s army – the country’s most important unifying force and symbol.
Verbal attacks facing Israel's army
How so? First, the verbal attacks on the army.
When the heads of the army and the security services are subjected day in, day out, as they have been for the last several weeks, to attacks by politicians and influencers saying that they do not know who is a friend and who is a foe; that they are incompetent; and that they are either exaggerating the harm to the army caused by reservists refusing to show up for reserve duty, or are – for political reasons – not taking strong enough actions against those reservists, this has an impact on how segments of the public look at the army.
Since the country’s inception, the IDF has been Israel’s sacred cow, placed on a pedestal, its generals enjoying almost reverential status.
The IDF has for years enjoyed a status unlike any other government institution. One proof of this is the ease with which former generals and chiefs of staff move into politics after hanging up their uniforms. They come out of the army with little known about their political positions, but are then gobbled up by political parties because the public likes and respects them.
When Benny Gantz came out of the army in 2015 and went into politics after a three-year cooling-off period, hardly anyone knew where he stood on any of the major issues. That didn’t matter: In the April 2019 elections, the Blue and White Party he led won 35 seats, the same number as the Likud. How? Largely because of the lofty status Gantz enjoyed as a former chief of staff.
Polls consistently bear out the degree to which Israelis hold the IDF in high esteem. In the Israel Democracy Institute’s annual Israeli Democracy Index, the IDF is consistently rated by far the most trusted Israeli institution among Jewish Israelis.
In 2022, according to the survey, 85% of Jewish Israelis trusted the IDF, with the president a distant second with 62%. Trust in the government was a meager 24%, just 1% higher than trust in the media, and trust in the Knesset was even lower at 18.5%.
So if you are in the government, or perhaps the head of the government, and you see these figures, and you realize that the IDF leaders come out of the army and within a few years may pose a serious challenge to you, then you might have an interest in bringing them down a notch, in denting the aura of the army.
Udi Lebel, a researcher of civil-military relations at Bar-Ilan University’s School of Communication and at its BESA Center for Strategic Studies, would not say whether he believes the current attacks on the military top brass are coincidental or a deliberate effort to tarnish the army’s near-mythic status in the country.
Nevertheless, he noted that Netanyahu’s difficult relationship with the heads of the security establishment – the IDF, Mossad, and Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) – dates back to the very prickly relationship he had during his first term as prime minister, which began in 1996, with then chief of staff Amnon Lipkin-Shahak. At that time, the military was critical of Netanyahu’s decision to open the Western Wall tunnels that year, with Lipkin-Shahak deeming the move provocative.
Netanyahu’s contentious relationship with the country’s top general and intelligence chiefs continues to this day. It is no coincidence that Netanyahu’s harshest critics now are former heads of the security forces – former chiefs of staff (from Ehud Barak to Moshe Ya’alon), former Mossad heads (from Danny Yatom to Tamir Pardo), and former Shin Bet chiefs (from Ami Ayalon to Yuval Diskin).
Two former chiefs of staff and a former head of the Southern, Central, and Northern commands – Lipkin-Shahak, Ehud Barak, and Yitzhak Mordechai, respectively – were responsible for Netanyahu being turned out of office in 1999, with Lipkin-Shahak going immediately from being the country’s top general to a member of the Center Party that helped oust him.
It is no coincidence that Netanyahu was the driving force behind a law passed in 2007 designating a three-year cooling-off period for retired generals and security chiefs before they go into politics. Why? Because they represented a significant political threat.
“He has never liked the sacred cow status that the IDF enjoys,” Lebel said. “It has cast a shadow over his image of Mr. Security. It automatically accords the army a psychological status that ensures people listen to it; that what the generals say is holy; that when chiefs of staff leave the army, they automatically become prime ministerial material.”
In the United States, Lebel said, when the army transitioned from a conscription-based people’s army to a volunteer army after the Vietnam War, it just became another organization – albeit an important one – like the police force or the fire service. It became an entity serving the state, no longer something sacred above the state.
Lebel believes this shift in status is what Netanyahu would like to see for the IDF in Israel.
This sentiment seemed to emerge in a tough conversation the prime minister had with Halevi and IAF Commander Tomer Bar last Friday, in which he chastised them for saying that the reservists’ actions against the judicial overhaul were harming the army’s readiness. “It appears as if there is an army here with a state,” Netanyahu reportedly said, as opposed to how it is supposed to work – a state with an army.
Breaking the myth of the above-reproach military may be especially timely now, as Israel is sailing full force into a constitutional crisis in which, at a certain time, the army – Halevi – may have to decide whether to listen to the Knesset and government or the Supreme Court.
For Netanyahu and other government ministers it may make sense to preempt the army by harshly criticizing it already, to counteract the common public notion that whatever the chief of staff or generals say is correct. Respect for the generals’ words, and the public’s trust in them, emanate from the army being the people’s army – a place where many of the country’s parents deposit their children for three years, believing that they are in the most capable hands.
Lebel doesn’t think that scrapping the people’s army and going over to another model – perhaps similar to the one in the United Kingdom – would necessarily harm the army’s capabilities or efficacy. However, it would remove one of the last vestiges of solidarity and unity – an institution fostering solidarity among the diverse segments of the country’s population.
“The IDF is the only mechanism that somehow socializes – ‘Israel-izes’ – certain segments of the population,” he said, acknowledging, however, that this does not include haredim and Arabs.
“The chance of someone in favor of the judicial reform sleeping alongside someone against the judicial reform – those are the fault lines today; once we used to say Ashkenazim and Mizrahim, or those from the periphery and those from the center of the country – is in the army,” Lebel said.
“When you remove that, there will not be any other mechanism to take its place, and it will strengthen the process of Israel turning into a country of gated communities, without there being one place where the different communities are exposed to one another and see that the various stigmas they have of the other are incorrect.”
THE OTHER force leading to the dissolution of the people’s army model is the conscription exemption that the haredi parties are pushing, with United Torah Judaism issuing veiled threats this week that if the law is not passed, it will bolt the coalition.
Even though most haredim do not serve already, this bill would make that situation permanent and grant legitimacy to their exemption. It would effectively signal that the country doesn’t even expect or aspire to everyone equally sharing the state’s burdens, something that would mark a dramatic shift in the country’s national ethos.
And once this happens, once the state exempts a complete demographic from service, other demographics will spring up and say: “How about us? Why do we have to go in?”
This move will also increase the number of reservists refusing to serve, as they will argue that they should not be asked or expected to leave family and jobs for several days a year and do extra service when the state exempts the haredim from any military service at all.
For some, Netanyahu and the government’s lending their hand to the dissolution of the people’s army seems inexplicable. Why would they do this? Why would they want this?
Perhaps because an all-inclusive army (except for Arabs and the haredim) gives the IDF too much prominence, respect, and influence. With the judicial overhaul debate soon coming to a head, if that prominence, respect, and influence are diminished a bit, then – at least for this government – that might not necessarily be the worst thing in the world. •