Analysis

No Fighting in the War Room: Israeli Politicians, Generals Call for Unity

The military and political elites all stated their desire for the country to unite, echoing the previous sentiments of President Reuven Rivlin. And this time, they might actually mean it.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (center) with IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot
Kobi Gideon/GPO

Calls for unity have always been de rigueur at Memorial Day and Independence Day ceremonies. Israeli politicians would always sermonize, in interminable speeches, about the imperative to be united bequeathed to us by the fallen – while maintaining their mutual backstabbing. Nevertheless, it seems that over the last few days, the speeches of our leaders contained more calls for unity than usual. The president, prime minister, Knesset speaker, chief of staff ... all highlighted an almost identical message at official ceremonies.

It’s likely that the current contentious atmosphere – even more ill-tempered and tempestuous than the one that has characterized political disputes in recent years – is the backdrop for the flavor of these speeches. Dire warning signs could already be discerned in the miserable summer of 2014, around the kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teenagers in the West Bank; the murder of Palestinian youth Mohammed Abu Khdeir in East Jerusalem; and the events of the last Gaza war, Operation Protective Edge.

President Reuven Rivlin, among the first to detect these signs, gave his “tribal speech” a year later, in an attempt to redefine the rules of the game and maintain an ability to keep a more-or-less common identity. In the numerous speeches given this week, other state leaders could be seen falling in line with Rivlin. However, it’s hard to ascertain to what extent this message is received or embraced by the Israeli public, with its multiple “tribes.”

The last few months – laden with arguments about regulations on when it’s acceptable to open fire, appropriate responses to terror attacks and comparisons to dark periods of history – have not made things easier. Not everyone can deliver this message in the same judicious and calculated way as the president. Even at the impressive and beautiful torch-lighting ceremony in Jerusalem on Wednesday evening, there was one grating moment when the flag-bearing soldiers formed the words (in Hebrew) “One People, One State.” You didn’t need to be the history buff, deputy chief of staff to shift uncomfortably in your chair at that.

Soldiers form the words "One People. One State" during the Independence Day celebration in Jerusalem, May 11, 2016.
Channel 2 screenshot

The ones particularly aware of current dangers are senior members of the military. The breakdown of confidence that occurred in recent weeks – between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon and top brass – are not the invention of journalists. In his previous terms in office, Netanyahu had tense moments with chiefs of staff – first with Amnon Lipkin-Shahak, and, a decade later, with Gabi Ashkenazi.

What’s different and more worrying this time is the seeping of the charged political debate into the army’s ranks and combat units (even if there were precedents – for example, various incidents involving refusal to follow orders during the first Lebanon war and during the disengagement from the Gaza Strip).

The extent to which current Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot is worried about this could be discerned in his speech at the Memorial Day service at the Western Wall plaza. In his short speech, he referred to unity in one way or another no less than 11 times, in addition to references to “our common way” for more emphasis. It was the uniformed Eisenkot who gave the public a lesson in civics (presumably taken from the older, soon to be replaced, textbook): Commanders and soldiers should know, “without a shadow of a doubt, that the entire nation supports them and backs them, even when there are disputes. Unity is not necessarily consensus, but we can’t allow differences to harm the unity of our goals. The nation’s trust in the IDF is vital for the realization of our goal: To defend the state and ensure its survival and, if necessary, to win wars,” he said.

IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot at official Memorial Day ceremony on Mount Herzl. May 10, 2016.
Olivier Fitoussi

Were it not for the chief of staff’s tendency to recite everything in a monotonous tone, one could have understood his words to be almost a plea for politicians to return the debate to a normal level and leave the army, which now finds itself the center of contention, outside their clumsy embrace.

On the eve of Independence Day, Haaretz published a futuristic fantasy by its Middle Eastern affairs analyst, Zvi Bar’el. In it, he described a military coup in which the army saves Israeli democracy from itself.

In practice, it’s hard to imagine how this could come about, even in extreme circumstances. Even more than his predecessors, the current chief of staff is aware of the rules and obligations imposed on him by a statist conception of this country. If then-Defense Minister Ariel Sharon didn’t surround the Prime Minister’s Office with tanks, despite warnings relating to Sharon’s personality, Eisenkot will definitely not do so.

The stances taken by Eisenkot in the recent controversies were developed with professional judgment. But his policies – the insistence on scuttling outside intervention regarding open-fire orders; leaving room for discretion to the military advocate general in the case of Elor Azaria, the soldier being tried for manslaughter after shooting a wounded Palestinian assailant in Hebron in March; the refusal to allow the army to be turned into a punching bag for a few politicians – also have political implications.

The chief of staff’s attacks could erode the public’s confidence in him, but the damage that will be caused in the process will be mutual. Netanyahu is fully aware that no prime minister can benefit in the long run from a direct clash with the IDF. Therefore, it is reasonable to expect him ultimately to curb the tensions with the army.

Racist and violent phenomena that were common here in recent months, on the backdrop of the recent terror wave, may have made it difficult for some citizens to wholeheartedly celebrate Independence Day events this year. However, in a country in which Lt. Ilak Sahalu can, in the space of two years, go from being a combat officer in the Nahal Brigade to a full-fledged rap star as part of the Strong Black Coffee group, and then be a star attraction at this year’s torch-lighting ceremony – even if there’s no guarantee that “It’ll Be Alright,” as his song goes – one can still hope things aren’t totally lost.

Cafe Shahor Hazak (Strong Black Coffee) ft, Nechi Nech - Ihiye beseder (Itll Be Alright")