Opinion

How Netanyahu Crushed Israel's Love Affair With the Army

Israelis may be looking for their next leader, but they aren't finding answers in the ranks of the army

Netanyahu meets with Israel Defense Forces troops serving on the Gaza border, 2016.
Amos Ben Gershom / GPO

The current political situation in Israel is odd in several respects — the absence of an alternative to Benjamin Netanyahu, for one. No figure with public heft, either in the political arena or outside it, threatens the prime minister’s status. But a comparison of the present political mess to similar crises in the past turns up a variable that is distinctive to our time: There is no army general on the horizon.

For decades, the political arena was packed with retired generals, and uniformed officers sat on the bench waiting for a leadership position to open up. When the serving leader found himself in political trouble, a revered high-ranking officer usually appeared to reap the fruits. At present, in contrast, there’s no general who’s emerging as a reasonable candidate to pluck the country’s leadership.

The politicians mentioned as possible replacements for Netanyahu are Yair Lapid, Yisrael Katz, Gideon Sa’ar and Naftali Bennett. Two former chiefs of staff, Gabi Ashkenazi and Benny Gantz, might join a political party in the future, but it would be difficult to say that the political arena is awaiting either of them with baited breath. Miri Regev, a former IDF spokeswoman and chief military censor, is perhaps the most senior former officer (her top rank was brigadier general) who enjoys significant political power. Ehud Barak issues occasional tweets, and Moshe Ya’alon has launched a crowdfunding campaign to establish a party, as though he were an indie artist who dreams of producing an album and not a former chief of staff. That in itself shows how far the status of top officers has deteriorated.

Amid the grotesque horror show of the fourth Netanyahu government, a surprising development is sometimes forgotten: the sharp decline in the army’s status in Israeli society. Ahead of the country’s 70th birthday, Israel is more right-wing and more religious — but saliently less militaristic. From the state’s establishment, admiration for the army and its commanding officers had been the most consistent feature of Israeli political culture, from right to left, across the Zionist political spectrum. Some claimed that there would never be a military coup in Israel because the country was already being led by generals.

But something has changed in the past few years. Even if the newspapers and the newscasts enjoy publishing and broadcasting items that had their origins in the IDF Spokesperson’s Unit, the love affair between Israelis and the army appears to be cracked.

Various political events in recent years have signified this process. The Harpaz affair (in which a serving chief of staff and the defense minister came into open conflict over their respective efforts to influence the choice of the next IDF head), and the wars of the generals that became public knowledge in its wake, showed the army leadership in a ridiculous light and eroded the standing of the popular chief of staff, Gabi Ashkenazi. The trial of Elor Azaria (“the Hebron shooter”) and the sharp attacks that were aimed at Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot in the right-wing media because of his stance in that affair revealed a wariness on the part of broad segments of the public toward the official military hierarchy. The appointment of Avigdor Lieberman as defense minister completed the process by subordinating the army to a right-wing politician whose own military service had been abridged.

Since the 1982 Lebanon war, Israel’s military campaigns haven’t spawned many heroes, and maintaining the occupation is also devoid of heroics, Sami Peretz noted recently (Haaretz Hebrew edition, March 21). The occupation is in fact producing popular heroes — only they’re not generals. The scholars Adi Kuntsman and Rebecca L. Stein have termed the type of militarism that has emerged in Israel in the past decade “digital militarism.” It’s an individualistic military culture manifested, for example, in the self-portraits that soldiers post on Instagram or in patriotic clips on Facebook.

Netanyahu with IDF chief of staff Gadi Eisenkot.
Ilan Assayag

Like the old militarism within which it sprang up, the digital variety is nationalist and chauvinist, but it’s producing heroes of a new type who are not subordinate to the military hierarchy. As such, this development ultimately undermines the military establishment itself, outflanking it from the right.

The Azaria episode showed that a simple soldier who shot a dying Palestinian terrorist in the head can be more popular than a decorated officer who commanded brigades and divisions. Patriotic instigators such as the journalist and former MK Sharon Gal shout “Well done, IDF,” but the popularity they acquire comes at the expense of the army commanders themselves. At the same time, the army increasingly abases itself before the rabbis of the religious-Zionist movement. As the sociologist Yagil Levy has shown, the army is being theocratized, and the high command has in large measure lost control over the institution’s conduct in that respect.

Monsters without uniforms

A global view of the political regimes that are rising to the fore in our time will show that the status of generals is also being eroded universally. Democracy and liberalism are in retreat, but they are almost never replaced by military regimes. In fact, over the past century, military dictatorships have become a rarer phenomenon than ever. From South America to Pakistan and Burma, military juntas have left the stage in recent decades. The authoritarian rulers who are consolidating power across the world salute the army, but are frequently in conflict with it.

This is particularly striking in Turkey, where President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has waged a relentless campaign against the army’s leaders, particularly after the 2016 coup attempt. The president of China, Xi Jinping, is clamping far more restraints on the country’s armed forces than his predecessors, and Donald Trump, though he has surrounded himself with loyal generals, does not hesitate to speak disdainfully about war heroes such as John McCain. The struggle between Netanyahu and the defense establishment can be considered another phenomenon of the same type. Netanyahu wants people to love only him, and leaves no place for love even of the IDF.

The populist regimes base themselves on a direct link between the leader and the masses, and are fearful of mediating elements — be it the judicial system, the bureaucracy or the army. But the decline of the army has another cause as well: the change that has occurred on the modern battlefield. The arms industry is flourishing, but the systems being marketed worldwide are increasingly based on drones and robots. Revered generals like Georgy Zhukov, Bernard Montgomery or Ariel Sharon are spawned by tank battles of the 20th-century variety. In contrast, cyberwar and air defense systems are producing generals who more closely resemble efficient CEOs — bureaucratic, uncharismatic leaders.

Even now, the 21st century is giving rise to a particularly scary zoo of political monsters. But there is no reason to expect that they will look like the monsters of the century that preceded it. In the meantime, it’s possible at least to enjoy the fact that they don’t carry insignias on their shoulders.