Blessings of war
Has Israel always aspired to peace? Just the opposite, argues a new analysis of Israeli military culture.
"Milhamot lo Korot Mei'atzman" ("Wars Don't Just Happen") by Motti Golani, Modan, 274 pages, NIS 76
Motti Golani's book is a fascinating, personal, academic and - to a large extent - intuitive journey into the depths of those characteristics of Israeli culture which together create what he diagnoses as the addiction of Israelis to power. Golani's basic assumption, which - it should be emphasized here - is harshly critical, is that Israeli society has adopted, with almost no questions asked, the "culture of power" and the belief that the relationship between Israel and its neighbors must be based almost exclusively on military might. Golani sums up his thesis in a nutshell: "Since the creation of the State of Israel in 1948, its leadership has generally preferred to use force to solve problems, not all of which have been life-and-death issues."
The most prominent and most controversial argument that Golani presents seems to be that "peace has not always headed Israel's list of priorities and war has not always headed its neighbors' list of priorities. Moreover, at certain stages ... Israel has preferred war to any other option. Between 1949 and 1973, Israel gave the impression that it feared peace more than it feared war."
This is, in fact, a bald denial of the sacrosanct Israeli ethos according to which Israel has always aspired to peace, whereas its neighbors have consistently refused to tread the path of peace, choosing the path of war instead.
Golani identifies and analyzes the tendency of the Israeli political and military establishments - and, following in their footsteps, Israeli society as a whole - to base themselves on a "culture of power" and on the "understanding" that every problem Israel faces can be solved through the use of military power. He tries to come up with the reasons that have led to "Israel's consistent choice of the military option" and believes that there are three factors behind this choice: First of all, the victory of the "offensive ethos" and its transformation into one of Israel's major policies. Second, the institutionalization of power and its total transfer to the responsibility of the political and military establishments. And, third, Israel's military successes. Every successful war has made it that much easier to choose the use of power in the next war.
Choosing the military option
Golani is, of course, correct in his analysis. However, he goes beyond merely presenting the factors and tries to offer explanations for them, since he is aware that the situation cannot be attributed solely to the existence of three factors rooted in the operational successes of the Israel Defense Forces or in the formation of effective defense establishments.
At the foundation of his book is an important fundamental assumption, which, although not stated explicitly, provides the only means for understanding the processes that have led to the fact that Israeli society has learned how to live with the "consistent choice of the military option." In other words, he is talking about the development of a unique culture, which could be termed a "military culture." In this culture, military issues are always given top priority and they invariably take precedence over all of Israeli society's spheres of activity.
Regarding this issue, Yehezkel Dror claims in his book, "Grand Strategies for Israel" (in Hebrew), that "even if we take into account the immense attention focused on security issues in countries with national defense systems - such as Sweden and Switzerland - and the percentage of the American budget devoted to defense spending, Israel is still the only country in the world where security problems constitute so central a component in its very essence. This fact is reflected in the degree to which national resources are allocated, directly or indirectly, to defense; in the extent of the average Israeli citizen's service and involvement in the army; in the percentage of security research studies; and in similar quantitative terms. Moreover, from the standpoint of the national psyche and from the standpoint of the government's considerations, defense occupies a central and prestigious position on the national agenda in a manner that is distinct from the way defense is viewed in other democratic countries."
According to Golani's analysis of the "national psyche" and the "government's considerations," one of the central concepts of the Israeli "military culture" is that there is no political option on which Israel can base its security. The conclusion is thus that Israel has only the military option, which is regarded as an inevitable necessity. The military option and the use of military might have been forced upon Israel, which has no other choice but to fight wars that have been forced upon it and which Israel must win in order to prevent its annihilation.
Testimony on the extent to which the idea of Israel's lack of a political option has taken root and has actually become a firm article of faith in Israeli thinking can be seen in what Shimon Peres wrote in 1970 in his book "David's Sling." In his discussion of Israel's situation as a country confronted by the hostility of the Arab nations, Peres argues that Israel "has no real option of turning to the political sphere in order to obtain a compromise that would constitute a genuine breakthrough - no compromise could ever satisfy the Arab side."
The concept according to which the only way to deal with the problems created by Israel's conflict with the Arab states is the use of military power has not remained solely a theoretical idea but has been translated into actual policies. Following David Ben-Gurion's example, Moshe Dayan became one of the main champions of the concept. Even when he was chief of staff, Dayan made strenuous efforts to drag Egypt into an all-out war with Israel. Believing that only a concrete illustration of Israel's military might would deter the Arabs, Dayan sought every possible way of igniting the flames of war.
It was Dayan who, between 1955 and 1956, was the most energetic proponent of the war plans that led to the Sinai Campaign of October 1956. Golani, who devoted a comprehensive research study - "There Will be War This Summer" (Tel Aviv: Ma'arachot, 1997; in Hebrew) - to the period immediately preceding the Sinai Campaign, considers Dayan a pivotal figure who exerted immense influence during that era, and Golani concludes that, as chief of staff, Dayan's weltanschauung neatly dovetailed with the process of the formation of the view that the use of military power was unavoidable. According to Golani, the background to Dayan's appearance on center stage in terms of both public life and the Israeli psyche was the rise of the concept of power in the Israeli ethos.
Frightening the public
Golani also considers the extent to which Israel's political-military leadership uses fear-mongering tactics in security issues. That leadership generates anxiety in order to mobilize Israeli society and to deflect the public's gaze from domestic problems, such as a deteriorating economic situation or a growing unemployment rate: "Ben-Gurion and his people made clever use of feelings in the street. The country's leadership was not interested in broadcasting calm, but instead chose to make use of these genuine feelings of anxiety in order to mobilize the Jewish community in the Holy Land, the Jewish people as a whole and the international community to further the Zionist/Israeli issue. The plan worked. The lessons were learned and this same formula would be used in the following decades."
The lessons were certainly taken to heart. The fear-mongering campaign that preceded the war in Iraq is convincing proof that the Israeli leadership has become expert in the ability to frighten the public in the face of military threats.
Golani notes the danger inherent in this sort of technique: "The excessive appeal to `a sense of solidarity in the face of a threat' and even the invention of a threat to lessen internal tensions (especially when they are focused on the leadership) are a weapon that must never be used. As a form of political manipulation, this tactic could lead to disaster."
I think that Golani is incorrect here, because, as experience demonstrates, even when such political manipulation is carried out, it never leads to a disaster and the leadership, in both the political and military spheres, is never called upon to give an accounting of such manipulative actions to the public.
Another issue discussed by Golani is the military's involvement in the policy-making process: "It is one thing to draw up a blueprint for a war and to implement it. That is the job of an army in a democratic regime. It is quite another thing to intervene in the political-diplomatic debate not as an expert military consultant but rather as someone who has a clearly defined approach and who tries to induce the decision-makers (even through the use of force) to accept it. When the same person who is determined that a given concept will win the day is also the one with the finger on the trigger, that situation can have far-reaching symbolic and practical significance. This statement is certainly valid when one is talking about a country that claims to be a properly run democracy where the various arms of government are strictly separated from one another."
This is undoubtedly an extremely important topic, because there is no other democracy on earth where the army has such a major role and exerts such critical influence on policy-making. In addition to the existence of a "military culture" facilitating such a situation, another central factor is the total absence of any agencies or mechanisms capable of submitting a policy proposal to the policy-makers that can be considered as an alternative to the policy formulated by the army.
Israel's politicians have deliberately avoided the creation of such bodies, thereby allowing the Israel Defense Forces exclusive entry into the field of policy-formulation.
Thus, Shaul Mofaz's behavior as a "political chief of staff" with no qualms about intervening in diplomatic processes is by no means an isolated incident; it is part of a long tradition of senior military commanders who are involved and who actively intervene in the political arena and in political and diplomatic decisions. As Golani notes: "The politico-diplomatic activism of Israeli generals was not a phenomenon that suddenly cropped up in May 1967. That activism was graphically illustrated in two instances of a "generals' revolt" against Ben-Gurion in May and June 1948 .... [It] reemerged in the person of Moshe Dayan who, together with the officers under his command, `invented' the Sinai Campaign in 1956."
In the context of the Israeli "military culture," another concept has developed: Any criticism of the defense establishment in general, and the army in particular, could do serious harm to their ability to function and thus, in the final analysis, could undermine national security. Since the IDF is perceived as the sole instrument capable of saving the country from the threat of annihilation, any blow dealt to the IDF is interpreted as a direct blow to national security. Therefore, the army and the defense establishment are simply not issues for public debate. In light of this situation, the assignment of a unique status to the subject of defense has become a "sacred cow" that must never be harmed and whose functioning and decisions must never be questioned.
Golani argues that no public debate has ever been held on issues pertaining to the application of force primarily because the successes in this field have been perceived as the successes of the political and military establishments.
He writes: "In addition to the Israeli establishment's determination to restrict the circle of those who are interested in its activities in the past and the present or who are critical of those activities, the establishment has been able to rely on a general feeling among Israelis that `Someone is looking out for us.' This general feeling has proc
vided a convenient basis for the development of a taboo on anything that could be construed as criticism regarding defense issues in general and the use of force in particular. Even today, the Israeli defense establishment seeks to prevent any open debate on the history of the use of force by Israel and on the manner in which force is applied today by Israel .... On too many occasions this past year, since the outbreak of the Al-Aqsa intifada, there has been a silencing of the voices of those attempting to express criticism outside the establishment of the manner in which the government and the IDF have been using Israel's military power."
The lack of a public debate has far-reaching implications because "making peace with survival based solely on the application of force blinds us to both external and internal change."
Signs of fascism
Regarding this blindness, one could mention here the fact that the Israeli public is taking no notice of the Saudi peace initiative and that Israeli society is taking no notice of the far-reaching consequences that may arise from the massive use of military force in the territories over the past three years and from the gradual process in which segments of Israeli society are adopting more and more signs of fascism. Concerning this point, Golani offers the following interesting analysis: "Force and its sister `aggressiveness' deliver serious blows not only to the character of public life in Israel but also to interpersonal relations in Israeli society. They leave a deep impression on the soul itself because they prevent it from considering its behavior, which could lead to an exclusive focus on settling accounts with the Other, to the easy and well-known route of `black-and-white,' `good-and-bad,' the route that leads to hatred."
In Golani's opinion, "consciously adopted soul-searching is preferable to the narrow monism that is growing ever stronger in Israel as it assumes various forms in both the leftist and rightist camps." The problem, of course, is that fewer and fewer Israelis are prepared to engage in soul-searching.
Golani traces the connection between, on the one hand, the trauma and memory of the Holocaust and, on the other, the behavior of Israeli society. Even at the personal level and in his description of his family's history, Golani extensively discusses the figure of the mythological Sabra (native-born Israeli), Uri (the warrior in Moshe Shamir's "He Walked in the Fields" - as a character who not only symbolizes an entire generation of young people growing up against the backdrop of war, but who also plays a pivotal role during a critical period in the building of the Israeli nation. Thus, the influence exerted by "Uri" on the development of Israeli society's system of norms and values is far greater than Uri's relative weight in policy-making processes:
"The human infrastructure of the Israeli war inevitably rested on the shoulders of the first-generation of native-born Israelis, the Uris. They did not try to fight the violent reality into which they had been born; they surrendered themselves wholly to that reality."
According to one of Golani's interesting theses, it was only the policy of self-restraint and compromise that enabled the creation of the State of Israel and the construction of institutions, including those of a military nature, during the British Mandate in Palestine. It could be argued that this thesis deserves an in-depth study, particularly during an era when the Weltanschauung of the country's policy-makers almost totally rejects any possibility of self-restraint or compromise.
Golani's book is important because it points to the serious danger facing Israeli society: The formation of a consensus with which Israelis have learned to live and according to which, in Israel's situation, democratic considerations are a luxury. The consensus regards national security and Israel's very existence as topics that can never be separated; thus, in line with this approach, security considerations must take precedence over every other consideration, including democratic principles. From this way of thinking, it is only a short step to the continued weakening of the already wobbly basis of Israeli democracy. Thus, this book would certainly be an appropriate gift for all those who are on the point of completing an officers course in the IDF. It can provide them with much food for thought and thus should be given to them well before they are appointed generals.