Last month, Gadi Eisenkot, the IDF’s twenty-first chief of staff, joined defense minister Benny Gantz, the twentieth chief of staff, in creating the National Unity Party. There were hopes that the alliance between the two lieutenant generals would energize support for the new list, but, so far, it has failed to boost the party’s standing in the opinion polls.
Since Israel’s establishment, numerous former generals have entered the political fray, their professional expertise seemingly relevant for a country facing security challenges unparalleled among Western democracies.
On the night following David Ben-Gurion’s declaration of independence in May 1948 the Egyptian air force bombed Tel Aviv, and the next day all the neighboring Arab states attacked to destroy the newborn Jewish state.
Despite the peace treaties signed over the years with former enemies, threats have remained omnipresent – sometimes only simmering – periodically exploding into full-scale conflict.
With defense issues always high on the national agenda, Israeli political parties have sought to enlist former generals to embellish their security credentials with voters.
Gen. Yigal Allon, commander of the pre-state Palmach and victorious commander of the southern front in the War of Independence (1948-49), was first elected to the Knesset in 1955 on the Left-Labor Ahdut Haavoda slate.
Not to be outdone, the ruling Mapai (Labor) party enlisted Israel’s fourth chief of staff, Moshe Dayan, to run in the 1959 elections. The eye-patched general, who had led Israel’s military victory in the 1956 Sinai Campaign, helped Mapai achieve its largest ever electoral triumph.
When Mapai split in 1965, the Rafi list, headed by Ben-Gurion, placed lieutenant generals Dayan and Zvi Tsur, the sixth chief of staff, among its top ten candidates.
Yitzhak Rabin, the IDF’s seventh chief of staff, went from being the victorious commander of the 1967 Six Day War to Israel’s ambassador in Washington (1968-73) to the Labor Party’s prime minister in 1974.
Chaim Bar-Lev, the eighth chief of staff, had an even swifter entry into politics: he was discharged from the army in January 1972 and appointed by Labor to a cabinet position that March.
The commander who liberated the Old City of Jerusalem in 1967 had to wait longer. Mordechai “Motta” Gur, the tenth chief of staff, became a Labor MK in 1981, in the first elections following his discharge three years earlier.
Ehud Barak, the fourteenth chief of staff, left the army in January 1995, became a Labor Party minister that July, and was elected prime minister in 1999.
The practice of catapulting military men into politics was not confined to Labor.
Ezer Weizman’s transformation from general to politician was the most rapid. The former air force commander was appointed a minister by Gahal (the predecessor of the Likud) in 1969 on the same day he left active service.
In 1973, the newly discharged general Ariel “Arik” Sharon played a crucial role in the creation of the Likud. He would have become a politician earlier, but the Labor government headed by Golda Meir appointed him head of the Southern Command to delay his entry into politics.
GEN. YITZHAK Mordechai ran on the Likud slate in the 1996 elections and was appointed defense minister following Benjamin Netanyahu’s first victory at the polls.
Shaul Mofaz finished his term as Israel’s sixteenth chief of staff in June 2002, and that November was appointed defense minister in Sharon’s government.
Moshe “Bogie” Ya’alon, the seventeenth chief of staff, joined the Likud for the elections of 2009, becoming defense minister in 2013.
Today’s Likud list includes former Gen. Yoav Galant, who had served as the head of the Southern Command, in the fourth spot.
While some generals headed existing parties – including Brig.-Gen. Effi Eitam, who was elected chair of the National Religious Party in 2002, and Mofaz who led Kadima into the 2013 Knesset elections – others created their own.
Sharon led his Shlomzion list in the 1977 elections. Dayan headed the Telem slate in 1981. Raphael “Raful” Eitan, the eleventh chief of staff, founded the hawkish Tzomet party in 1983. Weizman created Yahad in 1984. Former Gen. Rehavam “Gandhi” Ze’evi established the right-wing Moledet in 1988. Brig.-Gen. Avigdor Kahalani led the Third Way in 1996. And in 1999, a new Center Party was headed by Mordechai and Amnon Lipkin-Shahak, Israel’s fifteenth chief of staff.
When running outside an established party, none of these former generals achieved double digit success. For years, the singular exception was Yigal Yadin, Israel’s second chief of staff, who led the Democratic Movement for Change in 1977 and won 15 seats.
But in the elections of April 2019 the united Blue and White list received a record 35 MKs. The unprecedented three lieutenant generals in the party’s top tier, Gantz, Ya’alon, and Gabi Ashkenazi, the nineteenth chief of staff, undoubtedly contributed to the impressive result.
Sharon did even better in the opinion polls when, as prime minister, he left Likud in 2005 to establish Kadima. But his stroke and incapacitation prevented the popular premier from leading the new centrist party into the 2006 elections.
So many generals enter Israeli politics, only three became prime minister
Despite the many generals who entered politics, very few reached the top, with only Rabin, Barak and Sharon serving as prime ministers. Interestingly, Rabin’s first term (1974-77) was not considered an unsurpassed success, while Barak had one of the rockiest and shortest premierships (2000-01) in Israeli political history.
Sharon’s tenure (2001-06) came only after he had been an active politician for some three decades. And Sharon had to win two consecutive elections against fellow army officers: Barak in 2000 and former general Amram Mitzna in 2003.
But if only three became prime minister, the position of defense minister has often been held by a general, with no less than ten serving in the role, including incumbent Gantz.
Five former generals became foreign minister. Allon, appointed in 1974, was the first to become Israel’s chief diplomat. Ashkenazi was the most recent.
When Eisenkot, the latest general to enter politics, is sworn in as an MK in November, he will be the fourteenth former chief of staff (out of twenty-one) to serve in Israel’s parliament. But if Blue and White’s three chiefs of staff failed in three successive elections to deliver the premiership to Gantz, it remains questionable whether the National Unity Party, home to only two, can do so.
Perhaps voters appreciate that despite Israel’s pervasive security challenges, bravery and proficiency in battle, although highly commendable, do not in themselves provide the requisite experience for successful national leadership.
The writer, formerly an adviser to the prime minister, is the chair of the Abba Eban Institute for Diplomacy at Reichman University. Follow him at @AmbassadorMarkRegev on Facebook.