Prime Minister Netanyahu’s appointment of Avigdor Lieberman as his defense minister has opened up all sorts of fault lines in Israeli politics, but perhaps none as important as the one between the government and the IDF. Outgoing Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon was a career military man and a former IDF chief of staff who commanded the military’s complete respect, and anytime someone with that profile and background is replaced with a defense minister whose military qualifications are minimal at best, it will engender anger and resentment. More saliently though, the genesis of the contretemps between Netanyahu and Ya’alon that ultimately led to the latter’s ouster was Ya’alon’s unwavering support for the IDF against the criticism of Netanyahu and other cabinet members. Given that Ya’alon has been replaced essentially for not selling out the generals under his purview, civil-military relations in Israel right now are at a nadir.
Assessing the situation in the New York Times over the weekend, veteran Israeli military and intelligence reporter Ronen Bergman expressed sympathy for IDF officers, writing that in Israel, “politicians blatantly trample the state’s values and laws and seek belligerent solutions, while the chiefs of the Israel Defense Forces and the heads of the intelligence agencies try to calm and restrain them.” Bergman reported that the IDF leadership saw Netanyahu’s phone call to the family of Elor Azariah – the soldier who shot and killed the Palestinian terrorist lying on the ground in Hebron – as “gross defiance of the military’s authority” and that high ranking IDF officials have raised the possibility of a military coup “with a smile,” even if that scenario is highly unlikely. In response, Wall Street Journal columnist Bret Stephens forcefully defended Netanyahu and the political leadership, warning that when generals are comfortable publicly criticizing civilian political leaders, erosion of civilian control of the military will follow. Stephens further warned that a military that conceives of anything it says or does as impartially guarding the national interest is at odds with how democratic government operates.
Let’s stipulate from the outset that a military coup in Israel is not just highly unlikely, as Bergman posits, but preposterous, as Stephens writes. Israel has had democratic governance from day one of its existence, and while generals often enter politics in Israel and end up in the prime minister’s office – Yitzhak Rabin, Ehud Barak, and Ariel Sharon are the most prominent examples – never have there even been any whispers of an IDF revolt against civilian government. But there are certainly ways that the military can erode the power and legitimacy of the elected politicians short of a coup. Speeches denouncing the government can be given, orders can be ignored, policy deliberations can be leaked in an effort to embarrass politicians and influence public opinion, and a myriad of other actions can be taken that are utilized by militaries all over the world – including in democracies – to sway elected officials.
It is evident that the IDF leadership is pretty actively engaged in Israeli politics at the moment. Both Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot and his deputy Yair Golan have tried to influence military policy through public comments of one sort or another, and each time have been immediately attacked by members of the government and right-leaning MKs. That military leaders are speaking out is not unusual for Israel when you take into account the fact that the IDF and the wider security establishment are granted a large role in the policymaking process by design. Israel is a country with mandatory military service for most, it has fought too many wars for a country with such a short history, and it faces an unusually large array of threats, so military officers are accorded a measure of political deference. That politicians are viciously attacking them is unusual though, and while there is no need to extensively go back over ground I have previously covered, politicizing the military is a very bad trend. The military should be free to make its thoughts known on subjects that directly fall under its jurisdiction, such as rules of engagement and prosecuting its own for misconduct, and contrary to Stephens’ assertion, I haven’t yet seen an instance of the IDF “publicly telling off its civilian masters.” Seizing upon every utterance of an officer as an opportunity to score political points will only end badly.
Nevertheless, if Bergman is accurately relaying a military culture that even makes jokes about military coups because of Lieberman’s appointment, then there is a serious problem, even if the actual possibility of a coup is as close to non-existent as it can get. Democracy has to be taken seriously when you don’t get your way; after all, democracy works precisely for this very reason as it offers perpetual hope that the next election cycle will turn this vote’s losers into next vote’s winners. Israel’s Basic Law on the military is crystal clear that the IDF is subject to the authority of the government and that the minister in charge of the IDF is the defense minister, full stop. Once IDF officers stop treating this as an inviolable truth, then the entire system is at risk of breaking down. Vertical accountability and civilian control of the military are necessary components of democratic government, and that applies even when the civilian in charge is someone that you don’t like and is severely under-qualified for the post.
The trends on each side – politicians using the military as a political punching bag, and the military coming dangerously close to the line of callousness regarding civilian oversight – are terrible developments that need to be cut off at the pass, and potentially the greatest tragedy of Lieberman’s appointment as defense minister is that it exacerbates them both. Lieberman does not have the experience or the gravitas to prevent the military running roughshod over him, which is bad for democracy. On the other side of the equation, his very appointment indicates that the politicization of the IDF has only just begun, as the defense ministry is not one to be used as a blatant political tool. Civil-military relations is not an issue to be trifled with if a country’s political system is to remain healthy, so let’s hope that what is now just a spark does not become a conflagration that consumes everything in its path.