IDF’s main target: not Iran, but government policy

The army is using media in an effort to impose its policies on the elected government.

Brig.-Gen. Nitzan Alon 311 (photo credit: IDF spokesman)
Brig.-Gen. Nitzan Alon 311
(photo credit: IDF spokesman)
It was reassuring to hear Defense Minister Ehud Barak finally state the obvious last week: Any decision on whether to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities, he told Israel Radio, will be made by the elected government, not the army. Since the army’s subordination to the elected civilian government is a sine qua non of democracy, this shouldn’t even have needed saying. But it did. For as anyone who has followed the media in recent weeks would realize, many senior army officers seem to think their job isn’t to obey the elected government, but to impose their own policies on it. And so far, the government has done nothing to reassert its authority.
The nonstop media reports claiming that the Israel Defense Forces, Mossad and Shin Bet security service all oppose military action against Iran, though clearly an attempt to pressure the government to bow to this opinion, can’t necessarily be blamed on the security services: Their views have undoubtedly, and properly, been shared with cabinet ministers, and the leaks may have come from ministers who oppose attacking Iran.
But the same cannot be said of the Palestinian issue, where IDF officers have openly used the media in an attempt to impose their will on the elected government.
On October 24, for instance, Haaretz ran a front-page story detailing the “gestures” the army wantedIsraelto make to bolster Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas against Hamas, whichhad been strengthened by the Schalit deal. These included freeing additional Palestinian prisoners and transferring more of the West Bank to PA control.
Personally, I find it disturbing that after Abbas blatantly violated signed agreements by pursuing unilateral statehood at the UN, openly announced his intention to use this statehood to pursue Israel in international legal forums, adamantly refused to recognize the Jewish state’s right to exist, repeatedly lauded terrorists as heroes, and actively encouraged Palestinians to believe they have a right even to pre-1967 Israel, our army thinks the proper response is to appease him via dangerous concessions like prisoner releases and territorial withdrawals. Nevertheless, if that’s truly what senior officers believe, they have not only the right, but the duty, to so advise the government.
Except that isn’t what happened. Instead, army officers leaked the proposals to Haaretz even before submitting them to the cabinet, which they planned to do only the following month. Moreover, they did so knowing the government was likely to reject them: It had rejected similar proposals just a monthearlier, in the run-up to Abbas’ application to the UN, and its negative view of Abbas’s behavior hadn’t changed since. In short, this was nothing but a blatant attempt to generate domestic and international pressure to force the elected government to implementthe army’s preferred policies rather than its own.
But while lobbying the Israeli public against the government is bad enough, the army didn’t stop there: It even lobbied the international community against the elected government.
A month ago, the outgoing commander of IDF forces in the West Bank, Brig. Gen. Nitzan Alon, gave an interview to The New York Times in which he publicly urged Congress not to cut US funding to the PA in response to Abbas’s statehood bid. At that time, the government hadn’t yet formulatedan official position on the issue, but several prominent ministers, such as Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, were known to support an aid cut-off.Hence this was a bare-faced attempt to influence Congress, both directly and via American public opinion, to adopt the IDF’s position regardless of what the elected government ultimately decided.
Perhaps even more outrageously, Alon allowed his interviewer to infer that he rejected the government’s view that additional West Bank pullouts were too dangerous. This, too, was a blatant attempt to drum up international pressure on the government to accept the army’s judgment rather than its own.
Yet not only wasn’t Alon dismissed, his superiors actually promoted him – a promotion that seems to owe more to his politics than his competence (this is, after all,someone who spent two years as IDF commander in the West Bank doing nothing to suppress “price-tag” terror, then became a media darling by giving a press conference decrying his own inaction).
And the list of similar incidents could go on. On September 20, for instance, The Jerusalem Post reported that army officers recommended offering the PA a series of “goodwill gestures” in the run-up to its application for statehood, claiming such gestures would reduce the chance of violence. Two weeks later, unnamed defense officials asserted that the government was indeed considering giving additional territory to the PA and reiterated their claim that such handovers would reduce the chance of violence. These, too, were attempts to generate domestic and international pressure on the elected government to adopt policies it opposed.
Most disturbing of all, however, is the Israeli left’s support of this attempt to transfer policy-making to the IDF’s hands. Opposition leader Tzipi Livni, for instance, used her first of the Knesset’s winter session to urge Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to “listen to the heads of Israel’s security services; listen to them in every sphere,” and especially the Palestinian, Turkish and Iranian ones – as if it were perfectly proper fora democratically elected government to take orders from the army on major policy issues. Similarly, the left-wing Haaretz ran an editorial on October 25 entitled (in Hebrew) “Netanyahu, listen to the IDF.”
Since the IDF’s advice hasn’t always been stellar (see, for instance,Chief of Staff Dan Halutz’s insistence that aerial bombing alone could defeat Hezbollah in the Second Lebanon War), blindly adopting its recommendations would seem to be a bad idea even on its merits. But that’s secondary to the main point – which is that in a democracy, policy is set by the elected government, not the security services.
If the government is serious about preserving Israel’s democracy, it needs to make clear that insubordination by the armed forces won’t be tolerated, just as former US president Harry Truman did by firing Gen. Douglas MacArthur 60 years ago. Firing Nitzan Alon might be a good place to start.
The writer is a journalist and commentator.