Military Affairs / State of Emergency

A collection of scholarly articles discusses how the culture of security has taken over all branches of government in Israel.

Tzava Sheyesh Lo Medina:

Mabat Mehudash al Yahasei Hat'hum Habithoni Vehaezrahi Beyisrael (An Army That Has a State: New Approaches to Civil-Security Relations in Israel) edited by Gabriel Sheffer, Oren Barak and Amiram Oren; Carmel Publishing House (Hebrew), 302 pages, NIS 86

Eighteenth-century Prussia has been described as being "not a country with an army, but an army with a country." Twenty-first century Israel, too, is not a country with an army, but rather an Israel Defense Forces with a country, to summarize the insights and findings contained in the 11 articles of "An Army That Has a State."

"The power of the security sector in Israel is much greater than that of the civilian realm, and has a powerful impact on the political, social, economic and cultural systems," the editors reasonably write. "Essentially, the security sector (and in actuality the army) does not merely protect Israeli citizens; it also shapes the country's character, as well as the character of its citizenry."

This volume is the product of studies and discussions undertaken by members of a three-year interdisciplinary research workshop organized by the book's three editors - Gabriel Sheffer, Oren Barak and Amiram Oren - at the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute. The idea behind the project, which ran from 2003 to 2007, was to critically reexamine the relations between the civil and security spheres in Israel, based on the assumption that previous approaches to these issues "have proved outdated and unsatisfactory."

I am not certain that is the case; one can find research approaches that are valid, satisfactory and useful in previous studies by Gad Barzilai, Menachem Hofnung, Uri Ben-Eliezer, Baruch Kimmerling and Avner Yaniv, to mention just a few scholars. That said, the collection does still make a highly valuable contribution to our understanding of the evolution of relations between the security establishment and civil society in Israel, and to our understanding of the unusual phenomenon of having such a dominant "security sector" that plays a disproportionately large role in determining Israel's national security policy.

Each of the articles deals with some aspect of the unique phenomenon of the Israeli security culture, which came into being in the late 1940s. That culture continues to provide virtually the only frame of reference not just for policymakers, but also for most of Israeli society, when it comes to national security matters. Its entrenchment has led to the creation of a militaristic society (although scholars disagree about the designation of Israeli society as militaristic, which underscores the absence of an article on this subject in the anthology). In one of the book's articles, Ben-Eliezer argues that militarism has been institutionalized as a central ideology in Israeli society and as a basic element of the politics of those who set the country's policy. An idea has taken root that organized violence equals strength and offers an appropriate and desirable solution to national problems, whereas moderation and a desire for negotiations and compromise are tantamount to weakness.

Worship of might

As part of a consensus that grew over the years into a convoluted system of norms and values that can be termed "security culture," the army and the state in effect became synonymous. After all, without an army the state has no existence, and without a powerful army, which grows ever stronger, the state will not continue to exist. The need to be ready to go to war at any given moment, which in practice means maintaining a strong army, leads to the development of a combative society that gives enormous preference to military force. The army has a clear role to play in the event of war breaking out. It must use its power to deter enemies and make it clear they have no chance of realizing their ambitions to destroy Israel.

This belief in the need to maintain a strong army that is capable of exacting a steep price from its enemies also gave rise to a tendency to worship military might, which represents the final barrier preventing the country's destruction. This adulation has taken various forms, but in any case became an integral component of political culture and Israeli society, and gave the IDF special status.

A separate consequence has largely kept the Knesset and government from intervening in the conduct of the security establishment, which enjoys near-total autonomy in formulating policy, even on weighty issues like the size and makeup of the defense budget and the actual planning of war. Military policy that paves the way toward war is presented to the government for approval only after it has been fully formulated by the IDF General Staff. (The most striking cases are the Sinai Campaign and the first Lebanon war, in which cabinet ministers were briefed only a few hours before the IDF launched combat operations.)

IDF-made policy becomes government policy partly due to a lack of alternatives, in the absence of external bodies and mechanisms for supervising and critiquing the security establishment. The book addresses the serious flaws in the way the defense budget is put together, with an article by Zalman Shiffer entitled "The Debate Over the Defense Budget," in which he writes: "In reality, the security establishment, and particularly the IDF, has a substantial advantage in the budget process, thanks to its informational edge and thorough groundwork, whereas other bodies are willing or able to devote only limited resources to the matter. The Finance Ministry is the only body capable of challenging the security establishment, but only from a position of budgetary power, not out of recognition or understanding of the professional essence. The cabinet makes its decisions based on limited information and situation assessments that it receives for the most part from the army, and the Knesset remains a minor element in the process."

There has arisen within this security culture a mindset that criticism of the security establishment in general, and of the army in particular, could undermine their ability to function, and therefore harm national security. Because the IDF is viewed as the sole instrument that might rescue the country from the danger of annihilation, harming it is seen as constituting a direct attack on the state's security. This turns the army and security establishment into sacred cows that are above debate and cannot be touched, nor can their conduct or the decisions they make be questioned. Yoram Peri tackles this subject in one of the book's articles, writing: "There is barely any significant criticism of the army's place in Israeli society, of the assumptions underlying security policy, of the weapons systems and their purpose for existence."

The security establishment has become the exclusive instrument for shaping national security policy. This has also made the IDF a weightier force in the policy-making process, because "the only place they do work on national security matters is the IDF Planning Division." An analysis of this subject appears in an analysis by Kobi Michael, "When the Authority Bends Before the Source of Knowledge." The problem, of course, is that IDF planning is done from the perspective of the army and gives preference to its own interests. It is a narrow viewpoint, which does not take into account all the considerations that are supposed to guide the government's policy.

Israel became a militaristic society without undergoing a military coup. Ben-Eliezer says the militarism is non-partisan, crossing boundaries between those on the right and those on the left, the religious and the secular, Mizrahim and Ashkenazim, and new immigrants and veteran Israelis. It is a militarism of the governors as well as the governed. "Several of the articles point, directly or indirectly, to the manner in which an ongoing situation of an existential threat to the state contributes to the power and status of the security sector and of other bodies affiliated with it, and to its relations with the civil sphere and its various components," the editors write. "In actuality, the existence of such threats, domestic or external, real or imagined, severely undercuts the citizenry's essential ability to monitor the security sector, and permits it broad latitude for action ... In situations of this sort one can see ... a substantial encroachment of the security sector, and especially the army, on all areas of civilian life, a phenomenon that has various ramifications, direct and indirect, for these areas - such as, for instance, the flawed and problematic democratic government that exists in Israel."

In this connection, Barak and Sheffer maintain that "in order to safeguard the collective interests of those organizations of which they were members, as well as their personal and collective interests, defense establishment people and their civilian partners (who included a growing number of security-establishment retirees) started overshadowing the civilian leaders, and, as an informal collective entity, became one of the most influential groups in Israel."

"The historically continuous existence of the security network in Israel, especially since 1967, is what prevented the emergence of more distinctly delineated civil and military spheres, along with effective civilian control over the security sector," they write, arguing that this factor "encouraged the formation of militaristic views and modus operandi" and has had a negative effect on Israeli democracy. They argue: "We maintain that the security network's existence and influence contributed significantly to the chaotic development of the State of Israel since 1948, and particularly since the 1967 war, and that it does real harm to its democratic character and prevents its transformation from a formal democracy into an effective democracy."

Developmental discourse

In "The Discourse of 'Psychology' and the 'Normalization' of War in Contemporary Israel," Edna Lomsky-Feder and Eyal Ben-Ari offer an observation made particularly interesting in view of Israeli society's attitude to this winter's Operation Cast Lead and to revelations concerning the conduct of IDF soldiers who took part in it. "The developmental discourse (which focuses on the manner in which military service is built in as a 'natural' stage on the path to adulthood and manhood) neuters criticism of the war by taking the war out of its political context and turning military service into a natural stage of development, and particularly as the arena for a rite of passage into manhood," they write. "In a similar fashion, the organizational discourse neutralizes and veils the violent dimension of the military organization. But the most sterilizing of all is the traumatic-therapeutic discourse, which defines Israeli Jews as victims of the use of force, not as those who use force and oppress another people. In general, the traumatic discourse distorts the unequal balance of power between Israelis and Palestinians."

Oren's article, "Israel: Military Zone," reveals that the security sector has hold of more than a third of Israel's territory within the Green Line, and that it affects, "to a certain degree and in various ways, more than half of the country's territory, and to a large extent dictates use of its airspace and extensive sections of its territorial waters."

In the remaining articles in the collection, Erez Tzfadia analyzes the contribution the army and other security agencies have made to activity in the territorial sphere, from the pre-state Yishuv era to the present day, by Judaizing the land and de-Arabizing it; Yagil Levy writes about "The Disengagement Program as a Market Imperative," highlighting the close affinity between the security sector and the move to a market economy. Nadir Tsur argues that security terminology occupies a prominent place in Israeli public discourse; Meytal Eran-Jona discusses the security sector's impact on civilian life within the family; and Udi Lebel focuses on the change that has occurred over the years in the military's relations with bereaved families, in his article "Without the High Court of Justice and Without B'Tselem - Dominant Institutions, Shaping Culture, and Challenging the Military Authority."

This is an important anthology, one that will hopefully provide a basis for the additional studies so desperately needed in a country that is in effect ruled by the Israel Defense Forces. One can only suggest that the policy makers in Jerusalem, who frequently serve as little more than rubber stamps for the decisions made by the chief of staff and the top military brass, read "An Army That Has a State" and internalize the messages its contains. The experiences of the Second Lebanon War and Operation Cast Lead ought to convince them that it is time to alter the balance of power between the military and the country's elected representatives. Recent years have seen an ongoing erosion in the fundamental values of Israeli democracy, which stems from militaristic mindsets taking over Israeli society. The time has come to change the equation and determine that, as with any orderly democracy, this will be a state that has an army and not an army that has a state.

Reuven Pedatzur is a lecturer in the political science department of Tel Aviv University.