How Israel had a military coup and no one cared

The IDF allegedly refused to obey a legal government order. Yet this threat to democracy is being ignored.

Gabi Ashkenazi with Binyamin Netanyahu 370 (photo credit: REUTERS/POOL New)
Gabi Ashkenazi with Binyamin Netanyahu 370
(photo credit: REUTERS/POOL New)
Given how important the American-Israeli relationship is to Israel, it’s not surprising that last week’s US presidential election garnered massive media and political attention. But even with a news event of such magnitude as competition, it’s shocking that what ought to have been an earth-shaking scandal received no more than passing notice.
Last week, Channel 2 television reported that in fall 2010, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak ordered the army to its highest level of alert, known as P-plus, in preparation for a possible strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities. But the order was never carried out – and therein lies the scandal. For depending on whose version of events you believe, either our top defense officials effectively carried out a coup against the elected civilian government by refusing to obey it, or they betrayed their primary responsibility by failing to prepare the army for war.
What all the players agree on is that Gabi Ashkenazi, then the Israel Defense Forces’ chief of staff, opposed the order, as did then-Mossad director Meir Dagan.
“This is not something you do unless you’re certain you want to see it through,” Channel 2 quoted Ashkenazi as saying. It also quoted “sources close to Ashkenazi” as explaining that he objected because he thought P-plus status would create “facts on the ground” that would inevitably lead to war.
Dagan, the station added, considered the order downright “illegal,” since it hadn’t been approved by the cabinet; he accused Netanyahu and Barak of “trying to steal a war.”
What happened next is disputed. If you believe Barak, Ashkenazi said the IDF also lacked the operational capacity to execute the order, leaving him no choice but to rescind it.
Yet every senior defense official has known for years that Iran’s nuclear program tops Israel’s security agenda, and that if nonmilitary means failed, the army would probably be ordered to stop it militarily. Thus if Ashkenazi indeed neglected to prepare the army for such an eventuality, that is malfeasance of the highest order. Nor would it be less grave if the problem were lack of preparedness for war in general rather than for an Iranian strike in particular: A chief of staff’s number-one responsibility is to ensure that the army is always ready for war – especially in a country like Israel, where war can erupt at a moment’s notice.
Ashkenazi, however, vehemently denies Barak’s charge: He says he did prepare the IDF both for war in general and for an Iran strike in particular; he merely thought the order was a strategic mistake. In other words, he simply refused to execute a legal order by the elected government. Effectively, therefore, he carried out a military coup, abetted by Dagan – who, as Mossad chief, wasn’t even in the military chain of command, and thus had no business whatsoever intervening.
For this order, pace Dagan, was indubitably legal. It’s true that actually carrying out the strike would require the diplomatic-security cabinet’s approval. But P-plus status isn’t an order to start the planes rolling; it’s an order to make all necessary preparations to do so at a moment’s notice. Hence it doesn’t require the same level of approval.
Indeed, given Israel’s culture of leaks, the only responsible way to order an attack on Iran would be exactly what Netanyahu and Barak apparently tried to do: first have the army make all necessary preparations for the strike, then convene the cabinet to approve it, and finally order the planes to take off immediately after the vote, before anyone could leak it to the media and thereby impair the chances of success.
Only if a P-plus alert really would lead inevitably to war would Dagan’s demand for prior cabinet approval be justified. That, however, is sheer nonsense: A military operation can always be aborted, right up until it is launched. Indeed, the first strike Israel ever planned on a nuclear facility was aborted at the last minute; the successful attack on Iraq’s Osirak reactor took place three weeks later.    One might say all this is water under the bridge: Dagan retired in December 2010 and Ashkenazi in February 2011, so both are now out of office. And the fact that their departures were already imminent in fall 2010 may excuse what would otherwise be a shocking failure by two men still in office, Netanyahu and Barak: The few extra weeks that would have been gained by summarily dismissing them probably wouldn’t have been worth the media uproar and court challenges that would certainly have followed.
Nevertheless, this incident matters greatly, for two reasons. The less important one is that Ashkenazi is openly eyeing a political career, abetted by his media cheerleaders. Yet someone who, after being entrusted with the nation’s highest military office, either grossly failed to carry out his most vital responsibilities, or grossly abused his power by disobeying a legitimate order from the elected government, is patently unfit to play any role in the country’s governance.
Far more important, however, is that military subordination to the civilian government is a sine qua non of democracy. As Barak correctly told Channel 2, the chief of staff is obliged to offer his professional opinion, but the government has the right to overrule him. And the fact that this is the second case in as many years of insubordination to a legitimate government decision on a very important issue shows that this norm is rapidly eroding.
Nor is the problem confined to Ashkenazi: Though he was the prime culprit in the earlier case, too, his disregard of a government order to bolster the IDF’s presence along the Egyptian border was continued by the current chief of staff, Benny Gantz.
Media pundits, civil-society groups and even foreign officials have bloviated repeatedly in recent years about Israel’s “endangered democracy,” almost always on spurious pretexts. But defense officials refusing to obey the elected government’s legitimate orders isn’t a spurious threat to democracy; it’s a very real one.
Yet about this, our self-appointed guardians of democracy seem to have nothing to say.  And that may be the most frightening thing of all.
The writer is a journalist and commentator.