The wrong battlefield

The extensive deployment of retired generals by political parties may have exhausted itself.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during his speech to US Congress on March 3, 2015, with US Speaker of the House John Boehner and President pro tempore of the US Senate Orrin Hatch applauding behind him (photo credit: REUTERS)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during his speech to US Congress on March 3, 2015, with US Speaker of the House John Boehner and President pro tempore of the US Senate Orrin Hatch applauding behind him
(photo credit: REUTERS)
“HE MIGHT wage a coup,” they warned David Ben-Gurion.
Future prime ministers Levi Eshkol and Golda Meir were referring to former chief of staff Moshe Dayan, recently a civilian, whose popularity, charisma and fame were infinitely superior to those of the middle-aged ministers who surrounded the prime minister.
Ben-Gurion was not concerned. “Not many generals’ names are as glorious as Dayan’s these days, throughout the world,” the “Old Man” told a well-attended party forum.
It was 1958, a time when General Dwight D. Eisenhower was president of the United States, and General Charles de Gaulle was called in from the political cold, with the military’s help, to rescue France from its Algerian mess. It, therefore, seemed natural that Israel’s founding father would designate as his successor a general of his own (though Dayan never became prime minister).
Yet, what to Ben-Gurion seemed natural was actually unnatural.
The political deployment of retired generals is rare in the free world, with one exception: Israel. Now, while yet another retired IDF chief considers a political future, the uniquely Israeli phenomenon has actually peaked and may, in fact, have exhausted itself.
What began with Dayan’s installment as agriculture minister in 1959 was followed by scores of such second careers, few of which ended happily – for the generals, their parties and the Jewish state.
So common has this career path become that three retired generals became prime ministers, two were presidents, nine served as defense ministers, four were foreign ministers, eight were ministers of transportation, three were ministers of industry, and the list goes on to health, housing, communications and whatnot.
Of the current chief of staff’s 20 predecessors, 12 tried to join politics. The eight who did not join include the newly discharged Benny Gantz, who is still within the three-year interval the law now requires between a generalship and political office, and his predecessor Gabi Ashkenazi who is now being wooed to enter the political fray.
In short, there was no need for the coup Labor’s old guard feared; the generals conquered politics without firing a shot.
With the IDF so popular as it emerged from the Six Day War, politicians suddenly viewed the generals as precious electoral ammunition. Half the general staff of 1967 became politicians, from Rehavam Ze’evi on the far right to Matti Peled on the far left, through Yitzhak Rabin who succeeded Meir, former air force commander Ezer Weizman who joined Menachem Begin’s Herut, and former chief of intelligence Aaron Yariv who joined the centrist Dash, which was itself led by former chief of staff Yigael Yadin.
However, the generals’ political achievements, as defense ministers, prime ministers and party leaders were poor, and often catastrophic.
The Yom Kippur War’s trauma left thousands blaming it on Dayan’s conceit and a zeitgeist of arrogance his military aura inspired.
However, Dayan’s loss of political altitude and his replacement by the civilian Shimon Peres did little to offset the trend of turning generals into defense ministers.
Succeeding Peres in 1977, Weizman, eager to harness the ultra-Orthodox to the Likud’s coalition, undid restrictions on yeshiva students’ military service deferments.
The consequent multiplication of draft dodging soon became the time bomb that today’s politicians and jurists are sweating to dismantle. Evidently, the fighter pilot who landed in the Defense Ministry’s cockpit was unequipped to gauge his move’s social price.
The following decade, former general Ariel Sharon became defense minister and got down to the business of masterminding the misadventure now known as the First Lebanon War.
Just as Dayan underestimated Egypt’s psychology and Weizman ignored Israel’s sociology, Sharon misunderstood Lebanon’s ethnology, thinking too much of its Christians, too little of its Sunnis and not at all of its Shi’ites. The result was an 18- year occupation, 1,000 IDF casualties and wrenching political schism.
Two years later Rabin arrived in the Defense Ministry where he made three major misjudgments in four years, all attributable to his military background.
First, in 1985, he failed to appreciate the military’s pressure on Israel’s collapsing economy as he resisted the defense spending cut that then-premier Peres demanded.
Fortunately, Rabin eventually gave in to Peres’s pressure, thus contributing to the stabilization plan’s success. However, the deep cut in defense spending happened not because of, but rather in spite of, the general at the Defense Ministry’s helm.
Secondly, Rabin failed to prepare for prospective Palestinian upheaval. The IDF, therefore, arrived at the first intifada in 1987 untrained and unequipped for its demands, lacking among other things even the shields, helmets, rubber bullets and special units it required.
Finally, in 1988, Rabin scorned then Foreign Ministry director general Yossi Beilin’s warning that Israel should sever its military ties with South Africa’s apartheid regime because its days were numbered.
Rabin refused, ridiculing Beilin as “Peres’s poodle.”
ISRAEL HAS had several civilian defense ministers who repeatedly displayed intuitions the generals lacked.
Ben-Gurion, whose military career climaxed as a corporal in the Ottoman army, built the IDF and then also stemmed its spending, seeing national needs more broadly than the generals. Faced in 1952 with chief of staff Yadin’s ultimatum, he still cut military spending and let the general resign.
Similarly, Eshkol was both prime minister and defense minister and oversaw the effective equipment of the IDF prior to the victorious Six Day War, Peres rehabilitated the IDF after the Yom Kippur War, and Amir Peretz, a former union leader and small-town mayor, wisely overruled the generals who opposed investing in the Iron Dome anti-missile system.
In short, Israel has plenty of empirical reason to follow the example of the US which, other than George Marshall’s oneyear stint in 1950, avoids letting retired generals head the Pentagon. Yet, Israel ignores both its own experience and America’s example.
The records of generals as prime ministers are actually more complex than their performances as defense ministers.
Rabin built highways, reformed health care and increased teachers’ and doctors’ salaries, and Sharon inspired victory over terror, led the economy from bust to boom, and reunited the people he had split as defense minister.
However, by the time Rabin and Sharon began these premierships, they had been politicians for 18 and 27 years, respectively, and were no longer the politically clueless soldiers they had been when they originally barged into the political fray.
In contrast, as politically inexperienced prime ministers, the generals’ damage was severe.
In 1977, Rabin held a military ceremony after the arrival of Shabbat, and thus pushed the National Religious Party out of his coalition ‒ a provocation that underscored a career-long failure to dialogue with believers.
Rabin thus destroyed Labor’s 30-year alliance with modern-Orthodoxy, a strategic blow from which it hasn’t recovered to this day. This would never have happened to Ben-Gurion, Eshkol, Meir, or Peres, all of whom were very secular, but understood the importance of political alliances and what maintaining them required.
Still, Rabin’s prime-ministerial failures paled compared with those of Ehud Barak.
The decorated commando, who swept voters off their feet with his vow to raise “the old woman at the end of the hospital’s corridor” to the top of his agenda, quickly forgot about her and immersed himself in foreign affairs.
In that sphere, he announced deadlines for peace agreements with Syria and the Palestinians, which soon turned out to have been unknown to his interlocutors. Barak’s lack of diplomatic skills soon produced the ill-conceived Camp David talks, which were followed by wholesale violence.
At the same time, his political amateurism resulted in his coalition’s rapid shrinkage until it counted hardly a third of the Knesset and led him to the worst electoral trouncing ever sustained by any Israeli prime minister.
Though his was the shortest and least accomplished premiership, during the following decade, an unreconstructed Barak repeated many of his mistakes, leading Labor in 2009 to its worst-ever electoral showing; later splitting in two even that minute faction; and in the interim violating within days a televised promise not to join Benjamin Netanyahu’s government.
Barak’s political oafishness may have been extreme, but it was not unique.
Former chief of staff Shaul Mofaz became leader of Kadima, the Knesset’s largest faction at the time, when, in 2013, he demanded an early election only to change his mind at the last minute and join the coalition, which he bolted six weeks later, plunging the country into an election in which the 28 seats his faction originally commanded were reduced to two.
Similarly, the National Religious Party’s experiment in 2002 of placing retired general Efi Eitam at its helm soon resulted in his quarreling with half his faction before being voted out of office, splitting the party and vanishing from the political scene.
Understandably then, as the current decade unfolded, the generals’ political stock plunged.
The current Knesset has the fewest retired generals since the 1970s: Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, Housing Minister Yoav Galant (Kulanu) and Labor backbencher Eyal Ben-Reuven. A fourth, Yesh Atid’s Elazar Stern, has just joined following former education minister Shai Piron’s retirement from politics. A fifth, Likud’s Brig.-Gen. Miri Regev, is not perceived as a general because, as the former IDF Spokesperson, she was not a combat soldier, let alone a field commander.
THEN AGAIN, just as this trend is fading, local politics might for the first time ever produce a head-to-head clash between two former chiefs of staff: Ya’alon and Ashkenazi.
Ya’alon, now six years in politics, has actually avoided some of his predecessors’ mistakes. Unlike Barak, he is a modest man who listens to people and is never condescending; unlike Mofaz and Eitam he has not picked fights with his party colleagues; unlike Dayan he exudes respect for the abilities of Israel’s enemies; and unlike Sharon he has not been trigger happy.
Caution and humility have been politically rewarding for Ya’alon, who served patiently in the relatively marginal Strategic Affairs Ministry until circumstances opened the way to his real destination, the Defense Ministry. Even so, he too has so far displayed narrow political horizons.
Ya’alon has fought tooth and nail all atthe blueprint of a panel headed by Yohanan Locker, himself a retired major-general, that recommended moderately trimming the defense budget through a fixed, fiveyear formula.
Ya’alon’s failure to see the broader budgetary picture in which defense spending keeps growing while social spending keeps shrinking, growth nearly grinds to a halt and even postal service falters, means that he, too, like Yadin in 1952 and Rabin in 1985, is failing to make the transition from military to civilian leader.
An earlier sign of this failure came back in 2009, when Ya’alon opposed Netanyahu’s land reform warning that offloading state-held real estate to the markets might result in hostile takeovers. The argument was economically unfounded, but it helped torpedo a move that would have prevented the subsequent housing crunch and the electoral price it exacted from the Likud.
Despite his rare discussion of domestic affairs, Ya’alon is in a position to succeed Netanyahu sometime in the future. Lowkeyed, experienced, balanced, poised, and loyal, he is Netanyahu’s senior confidante on foreign and military issues.
Meanwhile, across the political divide Ashkenazi is being prodded by some to seek Labor’s leadership, and by others to join the centrist Yesh Atid party.
In his views on the Arab-Israeli conflict, Ashkenazi is a moderate, as opposed to the hawkish Ya’alon. However, on domestic issues, he is as aloof as Ya’alon.
If he joins Yesh Atid, Ashkenazi will be overshadowed by its dominant leader Yair Lapid. If he joins Labor, he will see its leader, Isaac Herzog, and his predecessor, Shelly Yachimovich, convincingly reminding party members that their elections last decade of retired generals Barak and Amram Mitzna ended in tears. If Ashkenazi tries to challenge them, they will maneuver him to the social, economic, religious and cultural issues that are dear to their electorate, and about which he knows little and has nothing new to say.
Ya’alon’s prospects are not much better.
Besides his failure so far to display a broad agenda, he is 65, only one year younger than Netanyahu, and a political generation older than aspiring Likud leaders Gideon Sa’ar, 48, and Gilad Erdan, 45, who are very civilian in their backgrounds and agendas, as is Yisrael Katz, though he is older, 60.
The generals then are not likely to restore their grip on Israeli politics. Their political leadership has been tested repeatedly and found wanting during an era that lasted more than half a century, and is now drawing to a close.