Israel’s generals and their troubled relationship with the elected cabinet – The Economist
Gaza has become a new civil-military flashpoint
ALL is not well between Israel’s cabinet and the generals who supposedly report to them. Major-General Herzl Halevi arrived at the Knesset on February 23rd for what was planned as a routine briefing for members of the defence committee of Israel’s parliament. Instead, the chief of military intelligence delivered a stark warning. Despite efforts by the Palestinian militant movement Hamas to maintain the ceasefire around the Gaza Strip, he said, the lack of economic development in the coastal enclave, currently under joint Israeli and Egyptian blockade, would inevitably lead to humanitarian catastrophe and another round of violence between Israel and Gaza.
What General Halevi left unsaid is that there has long been disagreement on Gaza’s future between Israel’s government and its men and women in uniform. Going back as far as the bloody coup in 2007, when Hamas seized full control of Gaza (from which Israel withdrew in 2005), the generals and members of the National Security Council have advised the politicians to find ways to help Gaza’s economy, opening up the blockade and building infrastructure, including a seaport there. The rationale is that better economic prospects would deter the Palestinians from firing missiles on Israeli towns. But successive Israeli governments, bolstered behind the scenes by neighbouring Egypt’s enmity towards Hamas, have not been enthused by these proposals.
Further discordant noises came recently from the chief of staff of the Israel Defence Forces (IDF), the well-regarded Lieutenant-General Gadi Eisenkot. In a lecture to high school students, he seemed to criticise the response by security personnel to the outbreak of stabbings by young Palestinians over the past few months. He warned that “the IDF cannot speak in slogans such as ‘if someone comes to kill you, arise to kill them first’” and said “I don’t want a soldier to empty a (rifle) magazine on a 13 year-old girl with scissors.” General Eisenkot was referring to the fact that in more than 60% of the attempted stabbings in the last five months, the assailants were shot dead, even though in some of the cases, they no longer posed a threat. One such case occurred last week on the coast of Jaffa, when a volunteer police officer shot dead a 22 year-old Palestinian, who had stabbed one tourist dead and wounded 11 others—but was by that point lying incapacitated on the ground.
Without mentioning the politicians directly, this was an implied rebuke to the tone taken by some ministers who have rejected any questioning of Israeli methods. The army chief’s call for moderation was met with cries of indignation from members of the coalition. It took the prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, four days to issue a rather grudging statement defending his chief of staff.
The tension between the government and the security establishment is largely due to the generals’ belief that economic incentives and dialogue will prove more efficient in curbing Palestinian attacks than further crackdowns. Last year, the main cause of disagreement was the generals’ reluctance to echo Mr Netanyahu’s warnings of the dire consequences of the nuclear deal signed between Iran and the international community. In briefings they have even spoken of the “opportunities” the deal could afford Israel’s security.
Despite the IDF’s central role in Israeli society—where most of the Jewish majority take part in compulsory military service, and the army uniformly ranks in surveys as the most popular of national institutions—the generals are usually careful to not overstep the line in public. Ultimately they have deferred to their political masters. The most famous confrontation to take place behind closed doors was in 1967, when military leaders urged hesitant ministers for a pre-emptive attack against Egyptian forces massing on Israel’s border. The then prime minister, Levi Eshkol, insisted on waiting for weeks until he received what he believed was American backing for such an attack, before launching what became the Six-Day War.
In recent decades, under right-wing governments, the roles have largely been reversed, with the generals trying to hold back ministers’ more gung-ho tendencies. During the first Palestinian uprising, or intifada, in 1987, army leaders infuriated the politicians by insisting that “there is no military solution to the intifada” and that only diplomatic means could end it.
Mr Netanyahu, who ended his own military career as a special-forces officer in his early 20s, has long seen senior career officers as part of the “leftist” elites who hamper his governments. During his first term as prime minister, in the late 1990s, he grumbled that the generals, who had been included by his predecessors Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres in negotiating teams with the Palestinians, must “change the diskette”. The most dramatic showdown, however, was to come in 2010 when the heads of the IDF and Mossad, the intelligence service, both opposed Mr Netanyahu’s order to put the military on a war-footing towards a possible air strike on Iran’s nuclear installations. Now, as then, he should listen carefully to what they have to say.