Israel's security chiefs' political path is moderate but muddled - opinion

Jewish Israelis have awarded majorities to parties of the Right in almost every election since 1977.

 BLUE AND WHITE chairman Benny Gantz holds a meeting with then-faction leaders Yair Lapid, Moshe Ya’alon and Gabi Ashkenazi, in the Knesset, 2019. (photo credit: HADAS PARUSH/FLASH90)
BLUE AND WHITE chairman Benny Gantz holds a meeting with then-faction leaders Yair Lapid, Moshe Ya’alon and Gabi Ashkenazi, in the Knesset, 2019.
(photo credit: HADAS PARUSH/FLASH90)

It is the paramount paradox of Israel’s political paralysis: while the Jewish public is more militaristic than most, it proves indifferent to the views of its top security minds. 

Jewish Israelis have awarded majorities to parties of the Right in almost every election since 1977. Meanwhile, the central policies of the Right – clinging at all costs to the West Bank – have been opposed by the vast majority of top security figures since then.

The latest reflection came this week, as former IDF chief of staff Gadi Eisenkot, who headed the army from 2015-2019, joined the coalition of parties led by his direct predecessor, Benny Gantz. In his first political speech, he stressed Israel’s need to separate from the Palestinians to preserve itself as Jewish and democratic.

It should be no surprise that Eisenkot favors partition. For the last half-century, the period during which this has been the main issue in Israeli politics, about the only exception to this from the IDF’s top ranks has been Rafael Eitan, some 40 years ago. 

There were also few flirtations from those on the Right, from Moshe Ya’alon (who is not among the most rabid opponents of Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu) and Shaul Mofaz (who ended up leading the pro-peace Kadima Party). 

 Former IDF chief of staff Gadi Eisenkot at the National Unity Party.  (credit: AVSHALOM SASSONI/MAARIV) Former IDF chief of staff Gadi Eisenkot at the National Unity Party. (credit: AVSHALOM SASSONI/MAARIV)

But mainly we are looking at a solid wall of “leftism,” which includes former prime minister Ehud Barak, former Center Party chief Amnon Lipkin-Shahak and former Gantz ally Gabi Ashkenazi.

And it’s not just the military. In the 2012 film The Gatekeepers, all six then-living former heads of the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) came out as critics of the West Bank occupation that they were in charge of maintaining.

One finds similar views within the Mossad, an organization much famed in film and story and not considered weak-kneed about confronting Israel’s adversaries. Every one of its directors can be considered a critic of the Right with the exception of the recent director, publicity hound and Netanyahu confidant Yossi Cohen. Tamir Pardo and the late Meir Dagan were especially loud about it. Even the police more or less line up the same.

Are these anti-Zionists in khakis?

WHAT’S GOING on? 

Some will claim a conspiracy by entrenched deep state elites in cahoots with the global liberal intelligentsia. That’s a type of thinking that is quietly spreading in right-wing circles that – like their equivalents in the United States – have mutated from law-and-order conservativism to revolutionary disdain for the organs of state. There are fascinating parallels with the current Republican assault on the FBI.

I have generally been distrustful of conspiracy theories, a tendency deepened by years in Cairo, where they thrive. My view is that any actual conspiracy will not remain a theory for long, because they require too much discipline from too many players, one of whom will eventually brag to someone over drinks. The truth is generally much simpler.

In Israel’s case, the simple truth is that Israel’s security chiefs tend to be individuals who understand both the details and the essence of a complex situation – which many voters do not. And the situation is that the Palestinians in the West Bank are too numerous for Israel to absorb, and also too numerous to ignore.

Indeed, if Israel had not in 2005 pulled out of Gaza, which was opposed by the Right, it would already today be presiding over more Arabs than Jews. There is a Palestinian majority between the river and the sea.

Rightists rightly cite the danger of the West Bank being (like Gaza) taken over by fanatics firing rockets at Israel. That is a risk, but not a certainty in the manner of the demographic oblivion facing Israel. It argues for caution, or perhaps even maintaining the military occupation for a while. But there is no rational argument for the settlement project insistently championed by the Right.

The settlements serve only to create a mortifying dual legal system for Jews and Arabs, endanger soldiers who are needed to keep settlers and their children from being sitting ducks and close off future options of partition.

I have met and interviewed countless senior Israeli security figures since first joining The Jerusalem Post as a reporter in 1988. Only a tiny handful appeared to think any of that was a good idea. Most held this view because of practical reasons; a few, like Barak, emerged as also factoring in moral reasons. Remember that the IDF – in the years before the occupation dragged its reputation through the mud – claimed a moral high ground and agonized considerably over something called “purity of arms.”

The same is realistically true of most groups of well-informed people in the country. But the security leaders are obviously well-informed in a particularly relevant way, and I have always sensed the Israeli public does not fully grasp the extent of this phenomenon.

You could argue indifference to the security chiefs’ analyses is a welcome departure from the infantile politics that Israel, like many countries, is sadly familiar with. Maybe.

But as with the conspiracy theories, I sense a simpler truth at play. The more liberal side of the global political dichotomy has not figured out how to speak to the masses. Its positions quite often require an amalgam of comprehension, morality, foresight and an understanding of the cruel realities of the least bad option. But it lacks the confidence to take such a case to the people (for reasons it would be impolite to outline too indelicately).

And so we confront pitiful spectacles like the campaigns of Benny Gantz’s Blue and White since its original 2019 incarnation (which then included Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid). It included no fewer than three military chiefs arrayed against Netanyahu, all of whom understood the disaster of perpetual occupation. But in his election ads, Gantz chose to emphasize instead how many terrorists he dispatched.

It’s hard to make a point without making the point. In this way, by running away from who they were, the leaders of Blue and White both failed to shake up the political map (they merely inherited the Labor Party’s captive electorate) and absorbed ridicule for being the “Generals’ Party” from the paragons of probity in the Likud.

There is some hope that Eisenkot is made of straighter shooting stuff. Not a likelihood, perhaps, but a chance.

As chief of staff he is remembered for warning soldiers against a light trigger finger and for throwing the book at Elor Azaria, the soldier who executed a wounded Palestinian attacker (unlike Netanyahu, who made a show of calling the killer’s parents). And he was clear this week in warning of the coming bi-national state.

If he keeps that up, he might just make a difference.

The writer is the former Cairo-based Middle East editor and London-based Europe/Africa editor of the Associated Press, served as chairman of the Foreign Press Association in Jerusalem and is managing partner of the New York-based communications firm Thunder11. Follow him at twitter.com/perry_dan.