Into the Fray: Debating disobedience

Is the Likud once again planning to use the military to impose evacuations of Jewish communities? If not, why did it opt to make Bennett’s remark an issue of such centrality?

Naftali Bennett 370 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
Naftali Bennett 370
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
Theirs not to make reply; Theirs not to reason why; Theirs but to do and die – Alfred Tennyson, The Charge of the Light Brigade, 1854
Above all, the grand and only effectual security against the despotism of the government is... the sympathy of the army with the people.... Soldiers to whose feelings half or three-fourths of the subjects of the same government are foreigners will have no more scruple in mowing them down, and no more desire to ask the reason why, than they would have in doing the same thing against declared enemies.... Such armies have been the executioners of liberty through the whole duration of modern history. – John Stuart Mill, On Representative Government, 1861
The media feeding frenzy sparked by Naftali Bennett’s remark made during a blatantly antagonistic interview conducted by a blatantly adversarial interviewer, Nissim Mishal, was depressingly revealing as to the quality of the county’s public discourse.
Demagoguery, hypocrisy, ignorance
The furor precipitated by the browbeaten Bennett blurting out that he would ask his commanding officer to exempt him from having to expel Israeli citizens from their homes vividly underscores how badly tainted the debate on the crucial issue of military discipline and the proper use of armed forces in a democratic society has become.
Propelled by partisan journalists and distortive journalism, demagoguery and hypocrisy, dishonesty and ignorance have inflamed emotions to such a degree that reasoned discussion is virtually impossible.
The confusion that permeates public attitudes on the topic was clearly illustrated by the diametrically antithetical responses Bennett’s comments elicited – from the virtually wall-to-wall, Pavlovian-like condemnation from the main-stream press and across the political spectrum, on the one hand, to the public expression of defiant support from dozens of reserve officers in special forces units, on the other.
Reflecting this confusion – and the resultant misunderstanding – was the reaction of Education Minister Gideon Sa’ar: “Putting your own worldview above democratic principles is very problematic... following the rules of the democratic game is what keeps us together.”
But, when it comes to the moral legitimacy – as opposed to the formal legality – of obeying/disobeying a military command, the question is what are the proper “rules of the democratic game?”
Asymmetrical insubordination
There appears to be deep dissension regarding this question in Israel. In early 2005, prior to the Gaza disengagement, the popular website Ynet conducted a poll among its readers on whether there was any difference in the insubordination of the Right and of the Left.
The results were an almost 50-50 split between those who believed there was a distinct difference, and those who did not.
These findings are disturbing. For, despite conventional wisdom, there is a sharp, qualitative distinction of which half the population seemed oblivious.
This is a difference that is not only substantive, in terms of the political perceptions of the two sectors, but structural, in terms of their compatibility with democratic norms.
This miscomprehension was reflected in a recent op-ed piece by one of Sa’ar’s advisers, Eli Hazan, who lumped the two together in an undifferentiated “circle of extremists.”
He wrote: “I will refer to supporters of refusal, from both the Right and the Left, as the ‘circle of extremists,’ who refuse to understand that the principle they believe in is both problematic and mostly illegitimate... because they are not willing to accept the democratic principle in which the political leadership, elected from time to time by the people, dictates policy, rather than the other way around.”
Hazan has fallen into an error, common in the Israeli political arena, regarding the nature of democratic governance. He is mistaken on at least two counts.
One relates to the general mandate electoral victory confers on the political leadership; the other to the legitimate use that can be made of the military in democratic societies.
The nature of democratic mandate
Victory at the polls does not provide elected leaders carte blanche, permitting them unrestrained discretion to the end of their allotted tenure. They are not free to adopt any policy/measure that takes their fancy, but are – or should be – bound to fulfill their pledges to the electorate, at least within the limits of reason.
Clearly, it is unreasonable to expect an elected government to implement everything it promised in its election campaign, and to refrain from anything it did not. However, when an elected government (such as the Sharon administration) reneges on the central plank of it electoral platform, or worse, adopts the rejected policy of its defeated rival, which it urged the voters to oppose, it is the government – despite its electoral success – that is violating “the rules of the democratic game,” not the people who resist that violation.
This phenomenon of blatant breaches is a far greater danger to the democratic system than alleged allegiance to rabbinical directives over government authority.
After all, to permit an incumbent regime limitless flexibility in policy-making, and a sweeping release from its commitments to it voters, is to empty the democratic process of any substance, spread apathy and alienation across the electorate, and destroy the belief that participating in the electoral process has any merit.
For what is the point in voting, if upon winning the election, politicians promptly embrace the program of defeated rivals, which was rejected by the voters? This virtually guarantees the decline and decay of the democratic process. For once citizens begin losing faith in its value, it is only a matter of time until “alternative” forms of governance begin to garner support.
Right’s rage and rebellion
It has been repeated repudiation of hawkish electoral pledges and subsequent adoption of defeated dovish polices that have, to a large degree, comprised the sources of rage and rebellion among the ranks of the Right.
It is this rage, this sense of unabashed betrayal and cynical exploitation, that has in significant measure ignited the spark of insubordination on the Right.
This has clearly not been the case with regard to the Left, which has yet to be faced with similarly spectacular political U-turns by its elected representatives.
Those fearful for the fate of democracy in Israel must remember: There is a limit to the disdain that elected leaders can manifest towards their voters, a limit to violations of their electoral pledges, that once crossed, strips a regime of the moral authority to demand the compliance of the citizenry, a limit beyond which insubordination is no longer an unacceptable transgression, but a democratic duty.
It is crucial to note that the preceding analysis, and the conclusions drawn from it, regarding the limits of civil compliance has nothing to do with the specific of the political opinions of a particular political faction, but with the general principles of conduct of elected governments, and the duty they owe their citizens.
Political science not rabbinical decree
No less important is that, while religious beliefs undeniably have played a role in engendering a spirit of rebellion in the Israeli Right, much of the rationale underlying the impulse for insubordination can be found in the precepts of political science, rather than in the rabbinical decrees of prominent religious leaders.
But in assessing motivations for insubordination in democratic societies, another weighty consideration, which is routinely glossed over in the political discourse in Israel, must be addressed. This relates to the proper function of the military in democratic society and the constraints on democratic governments in employing it against its citizens.
This goes beyond a discussion of individual conscientious objectors and focuses not so much on what a private citizen should be permitted to do, but on what a democratic government should be prevented from doing.
It is, of course, true that, in general, a democratic nation’s military cannot function effectively without imposition of strict discipline and the overall subjugation of the military, as an organization, to the control of civilian government. Indeed, it is not for the armed forces to “reason why” or “make reply,” but “to do and die.”
This, however, is only a partial prescription.
Role of the military in democracies
For it is equally true that, in a functioning democracy, the proper role of the armed forces is to defend the country and its citizens against external enemies, not to enforce domestic government policy on its citizens.
Imposing government policy on civilians is a task for the law-enforcement authorities, chiefly the police.
True, the military has been employed within the frontiers of democratic nations, but this typically has been, or should be, confined to responses to disasters, such as floods, earthquakes and other natural calamities, in which the civilian authorities lack the necessary expertise and/or resources to cope adequately. This use of the military is precipitated not by purposeful government policy initiatives but the unexpected ravages of nature, and its objective is to aid citizens in distress, not to enforce the will of the incumbent regime on them.
When government initiatives induce such fierce and far-ranging opposition that the regular civilian law-enforcement agencies are inadequate to cope with it, it seems eminently plausible to conclude that the government is acting with an injudicious combination of insensitive arrogance and disregard for the core values of significant portions of the population.
(In the Israeli context, this is particularly perverse, since the potential source of insurrection comes from sectors considered “natural” supporters, or at least allies, of a Likud-led administration, and who helped it gain power, power, it is now hinted, it might well use against them.) Indeed, the ability – or lack thereof – of the civilian authorities to enforce government policy without the aid of the army may well be a plausible criterion for assessing the legitimacy – or lack thereof – of government initiatives.

Differentiating Left from Right
The preceding discussion provided the analytical tools to differentiate between the insubordination manifested by Israel’s Left and its Right.
While the existing law-enforcement machinery has been sufficient to deal with the phenomenon on the left-wing, when it comes to the right-wing, governments have felt it necessary – and, apparently, still do – to use the military. And as John Stuart Mill, one of the pillars of liberal political philosophy, observes, armies that have been used against significant segments of the population run the risk of becoming “the executioners of liberty.”
Furthermore, while left-wing insubordination involves the refusal to participate in activities consistent with the proper use of the military in democracies – contending with, or defending against, external foes, right-wing insubordination entails refraining from participating in activities that are inconsistent with such use – imposing the domestic policy of the regime on its own citizens.
Likewise, left-wing insubordination imposes on others the risky task of engaging hostile forces that the “objector” refuses to take part in; right-wing insubordination comprises refraining from the considerably less risky mission of coercing civilian compliance with regime dictates.

Too much to expect?
The roots of right-wing insubordination can be traced to the 2005 disengagement. To a large degree, it was the product of a twin travesty: (a) Blatantly and brutally undemocratic repudiation of electoral pledges; and (b) flagrant misuse of the military.
Had the then-members of the General Staff not been guilty of placing personal position above professional principle, they would have not left the dilemma to the soldiers in the ranks. They would have taken the moral lead; they would have, collectively, reported to the minister of defense and informed him this was not an acceptable mission with which to task the IDF and that therefore they wished to be relieved, collectively, of their duties.
That they did not do this to a man is deeply disappointing.
That not a man among them did so is deeply disturbing. But such are the realities of public life in Israel.
An even more trenchant question
In light of the row over the Bennett incident, an even more trenchant question arises: Is the Likud once again planning to use the military to impose evacuations of Jewish communities? If not, why did it opt to make Bennett’s remark an issue of such centrality? If it is, it is duty bound to inform the public and its voters in particular of its intentions.
They, in turn, are duty bound to insist on an answer.
Martin Sherman ( is the founder and executive director of the Israel Institute for Strategic Studies.