The general’s blunder

Although the IDF is an integral part of Israeli society, clear boundaries between army and society remain.

IDF Maj.-Gen. Yair Golan gives a speech at Kibbutz Tel Yitzhak in central Israel (photo credit: ASSAF SHILO / ISRAEL SUN)
IDF Maj.-Gen. Yair Golan gives a speech at Kibbutz Tel Yitzhak in central Israel
(photo credit: ASSAF SHILO / ISRAEL SUN)
THE ISRAEL Defense Forces was never envisaged as a professional army living on its own island and segregated from Israeli society, but rather as a people’s army. Moreover, the IDF with the state’s blessing has often stepped in to address social problems where the state failed.
For example, when Rafael (Raful) Eitan was chief of staff, he instituted a program that became known as “Raful’s boys,” effectively providing a second chance for marginal youth whom society had failed to educate and then integrating them into the army; or given the ideological and bureaucratic bottlenecks in the conversion process, the army launched its own conversion program for immigrant soldiers who did not meet the state’s definition of who is Jewish (matrilineal descent). Most significantly, as the backbone of the IDF are reservists, it is impossible to erect a separating wall between army and society.
Yet although the IDF is an integral part of Israeli society, clear boundaries between army and society remain and should not be crossed. Therefore, there was no excuse for IDF Deputy Chief of Staff Yair Golan to arrogate to himself the role of moral preceptor to society – especially at a Holocaust Day remembrance ceremony, where he claimed that Israeli society was displaying symptoms reminiscent of Weimar Germany. It was not just the supremely inappropriate timing; it was the sheer fallaciousness of the odious comparison.
Belated efforts by Golan and others to walk back the comparison cannot erase the damage done. As opposed to some of his critics, notably Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Education Minister Naftali Bennet, I do not believe that Golan awarded the BDS crowd a game-changing weapon. To satisfy the Israel haters, Golan would have had to do something more dramatic, such as resigning his commission or perhaps joining an anti-Zionist political party, as General Matti Peled did in the 1980s. You cannot simultaneously remain No. 2 in the Zionist “army of occupation” hierarchy and qualify as a martyr or even a useful idiot.
The real damage is more subtle, but just as dangerous. Golan helped give currency to the myth that the real security experts are contemptuous of Netanyahu and his political base. This will undoubtedly go down well in the Obama administration and please the anonymous US officials who dissed Netanyahu as “chicken shit.”
They can now add Golan’s comment to IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eizenkot’s positive remarks on the nuclear deal with Iran to prove that they know better than an elected Israeli government what best serves Israeli security.
Worse, in Israel itself, the debate stirred up by Golan quickly seeped into another arena in Israel’s partisan divide with a predictable lineup. Columnists on the left fantasized about an officer corps that could serve as a counterweight to a depraved government and even speculated about a military coup. Conservative columnists brooded on the threat of a putsch against an elected government. In such a charged atmosphere it is hard for Eizenkot’s Independence Day appeal for unity behind the IDF to gain traction. The fact that he needed to issue such an appeal in the first place attests to the pernicious impact of the Golan debate.
Outgoing Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, who should have been alert to the direction that the debate was taking, unfortunately chose to pour fuel on the fire by backing Golan and, worse, calling on senior officers not to shy away from challenging the higher ups within both the military and political echelons. If he meant debate in discreet forums his statement was superfluous; if he meant no holds barred attacks by serving officers, he could be creating another Douglas McArthur, the highly esteemed American general fired for his outspokenness by US President Harry Truman in 1951.
Indeed, had Golan been an American officer he would have been immediately cashiered. The very least that can be done in his case is to ensure that he never gets the IDF’s top job. 
Contributor Amiel Ungar is also a columnist for the Hebrew weekly Besheva