Is Israel's Defense Establishment a Giant Interest Group?

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The Institute for National Security Studies held a rather unconventional workshop on Sunday, at which two professors of political science, Gabriel Sheffer and Oren Barak, discussed their new book, “Israel's Security Networks” (Cambridge University Press, 2013).

The two firmly believe that much of the activity and discussion surrounding security matters – whether in political or defense-related realms, or other circles – ultimately serves the members of what they call the “security network,” rather than the State of Israel or its real needs.

The possibility that Israel, the Arab nations and the Palestinian Authority maintain giant security clubs whose interest is to keep the public quaking in its boots isn’t a new concept. But it is becoming ever more important in light of the social protests, and given the possibility that Israel could lose some of its manufacturing activities to other countries.

The economic implosion of most of the Arab countries in recent years, and the fact that Iran has been positioned as the enemy could prove disastrous for Israel’s budget. This is because the ideal situation in which to increase defense spending (and beef up the influence of "security consultants") is that of a cold war – such as the United States and Russia once had, and Israel now has vis-a-vis Iran: Both sides keep busy developing ever-more-devastating weapons but don’t actually go to war, which could involve generals being disgraced and certain risks to the security networks.

The cold war with Iran has used up more resources than the conflict with the Palestinians, where most of the spending is allocated to civilian needs (building settlements) and not to defense per se. History teaches that defense budgets only get cut when a financial crisis erupts. Israel only slashed its defense budget in 1985, three years after making peace with Egypt and retreating from Sinai, because the economy was imploding.

The USSR collapsed in the late 1980s partly because declining oil revenues made it impossible to compete with the monster Ronald Reagan built. Could it be that security networks in Israel threaten its society in a similar way?

I had some unconventional questions for Prof. Sheffer, who has been studying the relations between the defense establishment and politics for a decade. My questions assume that the defense establishment (and so-called peace industry) does have some of the characteristics of interest groups.

Are the generals, terrorism experts and academics who are managing the discourse on “security” not simply a giant clique that's living off the conflict and the “peace process” – a clique that has built-in incentives to highlight and even create certain security risks, so as to be able to continue raising money for defense, terrorism, espionage, weapons and the peace industry?

“Indeed all the generals, defense consultants, terrorism experts and academics engaged in security are a sort of unorganized club. But it is an informal one and would better be called a ‘security network’. There is no question they make a good living from conflicts …

“Indeed, these people will stress the security risks related to the conflict to preserve their status, function and influence,” Sheffer says, adding that beyond serving themselves, they also enable the defense establishment to raise money.

Does the state of tension and terrorism alongside a protracted peace process serve the interests of the regimes in Israel, the U.S. and the Arab nations, which would rather distract people from social issues: the cost of living, the quality of life, education and so on? Maybe the best way to do that is to create a security debate about topics that most people can’t really understand and can’t judge?

“A protracted conflict like with the Palestinians, and the lip service that is paid to resolve it, serve the government and ‘security’ people any way you look at it. The security network people … want to entrench the people’s lack of knowledge and understanding about the state of the conflict and the ways to resolve it, which influences the resources they get. Without a doubt, the conflict in which the state is embroiled distracts the public from the [issue of] allocation of resources to defense, which comes at the expense of spending on health care, education, housing and more,” the political scientist says, noting that censorship also helps serve that purpose.

Is the debate between hawkish elements in the security network who want to increase deterrence, and dovish ones who seek a diplomatic compromise actually an artificial debate reflecting power struggles between groups over control of the defense establishment and the public’s political opinions?

“I don’t feel the hawkish and dovish elements are necessarily stable and unchanging. Like all networks, the security network isn’t homogenous and the positions of its members may change … Not all have a personal or group interest in perpetuating the conflict. Their argument over policy isn’t artificial. It is based on their fundamental opinions.”

Isn’t the biggest security problem the security networks themselves, which make politicians, decision-makers and society see all policy problems through a gun sight, via military analysis – not based on the needs and perceptions of the public itself, which doesn’t want war and does want a better quality of life, as the Arab Spring protests showed?

“The existence of the networks is a problem for the countries in which they operate. Clearly some of the networks will aspire to perpetuate internal and external conflicts. The security issue has an affect on social protest, like that in Israel in 2011, which evaporated because of the Iranian threat and the emphasis the security network put on it.”

Sheffer explains that the Americans, especially President Barack Obama and the U.S. military complex, have largely abandoned the tendency to encourage and to participate in intensive military activity to advance the interests of the security network. As evident in Syria and Iran, the U.S. isn’t throwing itself into battle, or rushing to join Israel in any action against those two countries.

That’s surprising, given the gigantic amounts of money involved, which have made a lot of ex-soldiers and spies very rich.

“The huge budgets the U.S. devotes to espionage and security equipment depend in part on personal interests … but the considerations are also security ones of the U.S. and Israel. It is very difficult to definitively state how much of the budget is determined by the desire to gratify the senior officers and other members of the networks, and how much by the genuine security needs of these nations.”

Asked if any senior officers admit this, Sheffer says he hasn’t heard of any doing so. Moreover, although the left-wing doesn’t to hear it, apparently the endless peace process spares governments the need to address civilian and democratic issues.

Israeli forces in the West BankCredit: Olivier Fitoussi

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