A Force to Be Reckoned With

In this timely book, Peri traces how the military view of political reality has become the main anchor of Israeli statesmanship.

"Generals in the Cabinet Room: How the Military Shapes Israeli Policy," by Yoram Peri, United States Institute for Peace Press, 328 pages

The timing of Yoram Peri's new book couldn't have been better. "Generals in the Cabinet Room," which expl ores political oversight of the army during the Al-Aqsa Intifada, has come out at a time when Israel's decision to go to wage Lebanon War II is raising serious questions about the quality of this oversight.

Prof. Yoram Peri is one of Israel's leading military scholars. In 1983, he published "Between Battles and Ballots." At the time, in the shadow of Lebanon War I, it was a groundbreaking and courageous book that questioned the popular notion in Israeli academy that the army was the executive arm of the political echelon - a kind of "instrumental" army, separate from politics. Challenging the most respected scholars of the time (Amos Perlmutter, Dan Horowitz and Moshe Lissak), Peri proposed a different model - one of partnership between the generals and the politicians. The army does not just implement policy, he claimed. It takes part in shaping it, through a series of institutional mechanisms. Since then, this argument has become a focal point for research on the workings of the Israeli army.

In this book, which offers the most comprehensive analysis to date of the role of the military in politics after the Lebanon War, Peri goes back to his old theories and looks at how they have fared twenty years on. He continues to adhere to the basic idea that the army takes part in shaping policy, but he goes one step further and shows how civilian politics, and especially political rifts, allow over-involvement of the military in policymaking. The army is not simply a partner, he contends, but one with clout. The way the army conducted itself during the Al-Aqsa Intifada illustrates this relationship well: The generals, seeing that the government was weak and had no solution of its own to cope with the Palestinian uprising, dictated an aggressive response in the field.

In this way Peri distinguishes between the army as subservient to the government at the formal level, but over-powerful in practice. While the army does not actually disobey the political echelon, it does not necessarily adopt a policy that coincides with the politicians' preferences. This pattern became more entrenched during the Al-Aqsa Intifada due to the change in military approach, from conventional fighting to forceful policing, or "low-intensity warfare," as it is called in military parlance. Under these circumstances, the work of the military becomes political in the sense that every action (the conduct of soldiers at checkpoints, for example) takes on political significance, especially when the tasks are carried out relatively autonomously, at the field command level, and the army is involved in civilian aspects of occupation.

On the conceptual level, Peri believes that the binary distinction of military versus civilian should be replaced with a differentiation between two types of thinking - military versus political-civilian. This distinction cuts across institutional lines and creates a fluid coalition between generals and politicians, producing coalitions that are "security" as opposed to "diplomatic." If we look at it this way, it is not surprising that the army's planning and intelligence divisions played an important role in steering the government toward diplomacy in the 1990s, whereas a "security" coalition dominated when the second intifada broke out.

Lebanon War II allows us to test the validity of Peri's arguments in a broader way. The strength of the army is Peri's point of departure. Organizational resources, control over intelligence and strategic planning, networks with ex-generals, generals' political mobility - all these help to explain the army's advantage in the political arena, and how it uses this p ower to leave a military stamp on political decisions and their implementation.

One major question remains open: How has the IDF amassed so much power? Without probing the sources of this power, it is hard to say how it compares to that of the politicians or whether it is possible to change the situation.

The younger generation of Israeli military researchers argues that Jewish-Israeli society is a militaristic society. The roots of this culture supposedly go back to the formative years of the Jewish community in Palestine/Israel. From the 1930s, if not earlier, the political leadership recognized the use of force as a preferred political tool, and this seeped into public discourse and shaped the community's political culture. This mindset became even more entrenched after the establishment of the state.

The key players here were not the army or the pre-state military organizations. Neither was powerful enough to be a challenge to the dominance of Mapai or impose a military world view on the political leadership. On the contrary, the IDF of the early 1950s was a scrawny, old-fashioned army grappling with alienated high school graduates and kibbutzniks. Its missions were drab and gray, without any militaristic agenda. In other words, it was a "military without militarism." It only grew to become a national symbol in later years, in the wake of the reprisal raids on the eve of the Sinai Campaign.

The secret of the IDF's mounting power lay in how the political echelon made use of it for its own purposes. The army was a tool for establishing control and authority. The model of a "nation in arms," as sociologist Uri Ben-Eliezer has suggested, meshed with the model of state-building embraced by Ben-Gurion, the state founder. It was a model characterized by a whole society ready for call up, suspension of certain civil liberties, over-intrusiveness of state institutions, blurred borders between ("free") civilians and ("disciplined") soldiers, and a seemingly uniform Jewish-Western Israeli identity devoid of ethnicity.

The army as a "melting pot" and a symbol of new Israeliness, falsely giving its Mizrahi recruits a sense of mobility, became a tool for alleviating ethnic tension. This, in a society built on a combination of immigration and inherent inequality between immigrants and old-timers. As such, the army became an important legitimizing mechanism that helped reproduce social inequality. Moreover, it was a social order that rested on keeping war a permanent fixture, and reaping the economic fruits of such an arrangement - territories, cheap laborforce, an arms industry, and so on. The profits went to the upper strata and helped to advance the mobility of certain groups on the periphery.

The centrality of the army depends on the centrality of war - a dependence that seems to have escaped the eye of many military researchers. Making political hay from the army is not unknown in the world, and there are plenty of historical examples. These missions were not instrumental in fulfilling the IDF's role in safeguarding the country's borders. But the moment the political leadership opted to create a "mobilized," disciplined and inequitable society by turning the army into the "nation builder" and making war a constant, the politicians became dependent on the army. It was not just dependence on the army as an organization, but on military thinking.

In other words, the military view of political reality has become the main anchor of Israeli statesmanship, from the victory of Ben Gurion and his allies over Moshe Sharett's conciliatory policies in the 1950s, through occupation as a fact of life from the 1960s, to the current preference for another war in Lebanon over the political option.

The dominant mode of "military thinking" is not just "the thinking of the military." It is a whole ideology that is deeply rooted in civilian-political thinking and relatively autonomous versus the army as an organization, i.e., it is an ideology that stands on its own. Peri, in suggesting that we relinquish the distinction between army and civilian institutions in favor of fluid coalitions that cut across these institutional boundaries, has taken an important step toward recognizing the autonomy of military thinking. Yet a broad study of the sources of military thinking is missing from his work.

Peri accepts the idea that Israel is a militaristic society, but he does not incorporate it as a conceptual anchor in his writing. The 1960s debate between "hawks" and "doves" is an example of two brands of military thinking, for instance, and not security versus diplomatic culture, as Peri suggests. If the outlook of the generals is similar to that of the civilian views of the political center (Labor-Likud), it has more to do with military values that have seeped into civilian culture rather than the army's move away from militarism as Peri claims on several occasions.

By the same token, the Oslo Accords, which Peri says were formulated as military agreements, with greater emphasis on security than economics, might be examined from a broader angle, taking into consideration the Rabin administration's reliance not only on the army but on military thinking in its attempt to carry out a moderate policy that was fiercely controversial. Military thinking was used as a tool to drum up legitimacy for an unpopular policy, especially among the nationalist, social periphery for whom the army and its symbols remained meaningful.

In short, if Israel had "an army without militarism" in the early 1950s, the trend in later years was "militarism without an army." Militarism exists as an autonomous entity. This conclusion has implications for Peri's comprehensive discussion of the political monitoring of the army. One of the points that stands out in this discussion is that close monitoring mechanisms, such as breaking the military monopoly on intelligence evaluation for national security policy, will increase political control over the army, to the point where effective political oversight will be exercised by civil society and not only formal institutions.

I would simply argue that formal monitoring of the army is steadily increasing, rather than weakening or remaining static, as commonly claimed. The militarization of politics has contributed greatly to this monitoring of the army, and not the other way around. It has made the army interested in being portrayed as a universal, apolitical organization that does the government's bidding, and created a dependence on the political echelon as the army's supplier of resources. Thus fewer and fewer spheres of military action have remained autonomous, not to mention hidden from the public eye.

Institutional monitoring (by civilian agencies) has become much more powerful since the Yom Kippur War, and has been backed up by public monitoring. Social movements have stepped into the arena, from Peace Now in the 1970s to Adalah in 2000. So pervasive have these efforts been that the professional autonomy of the army is being eroded. Military analyst Stuart Cohen recently warned that the IDF is being subjected to "over-surveillance" by civilian institutions. Hence the calls to exercise greater control, by strengthening the National Security Council or giving the Knesset more monitoring power, are misguided. It is not granting political institutions more oversight that will prevent military escalation that does not serve political goals, but keeping military thinking subservient to political-civilian thinking.

This conceptual system helps lay the foundations for understanding Lebanon War II. Unlike the past, when military moves clearly dictated policy, as Peri astutely observes, this time a decision was made before embarking on any major maneuver. Unlike the metaphorical "putsches" of the past (the "waiting period" in 1967, retaliation during the Al-Aqsa Intifada, and, it goes without saying, the reprisal raids in the 1950s) the army did not put undue pressure on the government. On the contrary, reports show that the political echelon dictated the ambitious goals of this war, going beyond the military "contingency plan" of forceful retaliation after Hezbollah's kidnapping of the soldiers. Moreover, not a single incident of the army surprising the government has been recorded in recent weeks, unlike past events.

In short, political control of the army did not fail this time around. Maybe there was even a little of the "over-surveillance" syndrome, with the generals swept along by the politicians and not using their legitimate professional authority to keep the political echelon within bounds.

Sharon and Mofaz's policy of restraint and moderation in Lebanon was converted into a war of choice by Olmert and Peretz - the most "civilian" team ever to head Israel's defense establishment, civilian in both the biographical and political agenda sense. Under these circumstances, not only was Olmert and Peretz's military plan the only one, but the political echelon stepped aside of its own volition and opted not to discuss it in depth. This time, there was no showdown between the cabinet and belligerent chiefs of staff like Rabin or Mofaz, but only the General Staff of Dan Halutz, which knew very well where it stood vis a vis the political echelon. No one prevented the ministers from asking questions, just as no one stood in the way of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee (after the previous government had discussed reforms that would grant it more control over military affairs).

It all goes back to the supremacy of military thinking and the great weight still attached to the legitimacy of employing force, if only as a remnant of the role the army and war once played in stabilizing a polarized society, by means of a "people's army" that mobilizes the periphery. Perhaps the best illustration of this is how the media rushed to stand behind the military agenda. Criticism, if it was voiced at all, was limited to the army's performance. Paradoxically, this is the kind of criticism that perpetuates the preeminence of military thinking, because it reinforces the belief that there is a military solution for political problems, and it can be put into practice if the army would perform well.

Moreover, throughout the war, previous political leaders were criticized for allowingo9 t z Hezbollah to grow stronger, i.e., for not launching a preventive war. As a result, the discussion of political alternatives was pushed aside. In this kind of cultural-political environment, a political leadership bearing a "civilian" stamp will find it hard to operate, and will often resort to giving the military more leeway.

In a situation like this, the civilian leadership will use the army as a political instrument in order to push forward its civilian agenda. This is what happened during the disengagement, and could apply even more to the convergence plan, which would be impossible to implement without the army's support because it remains so controversial. The civilian leadership thus becomes dependent on the army, as the vehicle of military thinking, and this dependency makes it hard for the leadership to hold the army back in the event of some unforeseen crisis.

Yoram Peri's book is an important step forward for Israel's military analysts. It presents the encounter between the army and the political echelon and does a skillful job of analyzing the informal balance of power between them. Now that the game board is clear, a greater effort can be invested in deciphering the rules of the game.

Dr. Yagil Levy is a lecturer in the Public Policy Department of Ben Gurion University of the Negev.