Analysis

Election 2019: The One Where Liberal Israelis Fantasize About Being Ruled by a Gang of Generals

Only in Israel can three gruff military men emerge as the last line of defense against Netanyahu and his war to degrade democracy and dismantle the rule of law

Kahol Lavan leaders Moshe Ya'alon, Yair Lapid, Benny Gantz, and Gabi Ashkenazi huddle together near the Syrian border in the Golan Heights, March 4, 2019
Gil Eliahu

A party led by three former generals who made their name fighting the enemy on the battlefield and exerting military control over millions of disenfranchised civilians would automatically be stereotyped, in any other context, as militarist, authoritarian and a threat to liberal values.

But this is Israel, where three gruff generals who lead a hitherto non-existent party with the appropriately patriotic name of Kahol Lavan (Hebrew for blue and white), are the dream team on which most leftists, liberals, peace supporters and human rights activists – not to mention Israeli Druze and Arabs - are pinning their hopes.

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A combination of sheer desperation and the unique Israeli relationship between civilians and military has thrust former army chief of staff Benny Gantz, along with his two predecessors and sidekicks, Moshe Ya'alon and Gabi Ashkenazi, into the front lines of Israeli history. They constitute the best and possibly last chance to save Israel from Benjamin Netanyahu’s final assault on Israel’s democracy, rule of law and whatever remains of its liberal values.

Granted, the three have hardly uttered a word that should endear them to Israeli peaceniks and those who, in countries such as the U.S., would be called “liberal”. Nonetheless, even Labor Party and Meretz loyalists who bemoan the fact that Israeli moderates have anointed a military junta to rule over them will be praying for Gantz and Co. on April 9.  Beggars who have lost to Netanyahu three times straight - and who haven’t notched up a decisive victory in 20 years – can’t exactly be choosers.

The joint enlistment of the military trio, amplified by their dramatic last minute union with former Finance Minister Yair Lapid, had already upended Israeli politics before the attorney general issued his decision late last week to indict Netanyahu on three charges of corruption. In less than a month, the prospects of Netanyahu losing the elections have gone from unthinkable to improbable to plausible.

And it is only because of Netanyahu’s proven record as comeback kid, the certain knowledge that he is desperate and will stop at nothing to remain in power - as well as the fact that he’s been around so long that young Israelis can’t imagine life without him - that no one would dare venture that his imminent defeat and departure might even be probable.

If Netanyahu resorted to the infamous, odious and more than vaguely racist “Arabs coming in hordes” ploy on Election Day 2015, one shudders to think what he is capable of when his own neck is on the legal line.

The stakes couldn’t be higher. If the generals lose and Netanyahu wins, liberal Israel will be defeated. Netanyahu will be given a free hand to legislate his way out of prosecution and all he has to do in exchange is sell Israel’s soul to religious and nationalist fanatics, who will change it forever. Given that the prime minister is uniquely vulnerable this time around because of his legal travails and faces a more formidable opposition than ever, a Netanyahu victory would deflate his opposition and lead it to despair. For the center-left – and some might say for the values enshrined in Israel’s Declaration of Independence – it’s essentially now or never.

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Nonetheless, it would be a mistake to describe Gantz and his cohorts simply as a lesser evil. Gantz’s meteoric rise within three months from nowhere man to potential prime minister is only partially due to the fierce and emotional opposition to Netanyahu in the center-left. It would not have been possible were it not for the prominent role, unique in Western societies, played by the army in the formulation of national security policy and, more importantly, for the special place it continues to hold in Israeli society, despite criticism from both left and right.

For those not intimately familiar with Israeli history and society, the left’s newfound infatuation with Gantz’s band of generals is a paradox that requires an explanation, albeit one, which Americans might find easier to understand today than they might have been before Donald Trump's inauguration. Americans aghast at the Trump presidency will recall how quickly they came to view the trio of generals – McMaster, Kelly and Mattis – that surrounded the president during his first two years in office as the last bulwark of rationality and restraint in an administration distinctly detached from both. How quickly a general named “Mad Dog Mattis” transformed into the last man standing guard over civility, constitutionality and self-control, until he was fired as well.

Then-U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis and U.S. President Donald Trump gather for a briefing from senior military leaders, White House, Washington, October 23, 2018.
\ Leah Millis/ REUTERS

But while Democrats often cite the criticism leveled at Trump by retired generals and intelligence community chiefs, they wouldn’t dream of anointing one as their ruler. The last general in the White House, World War II winner Dwight Eisenhower, retired 60 years ago. The last general who gave the Democratic Party a run was Wesley Clark in 2004, who chomped at the bit but stumbled near the gate. In America, to paraphrase Rudyard Kipling, politicians are politicians and generals are generals, and never the twain shall meet, or at least very rarely. 

Israel has never drawn such a distinct line between its military and its politics. Political considerations have traditionally played a role in the appointment of successive army commanders.  Once retired, no less than half of them – 11 out of 22 - have tried their hand at politics. Three – Rabin, Barak and Sharon – made it all the way to the top.

Clear-cut delineation between the military and civilian echelons may be possible in a country with a professional volunteer army, such as the U.S., and one that lives essentially in peace. But Israel maintains universal conscription, which means that all of its 18 year-olds, with the glaring exception of Arabs and the ultra-Orthodox as well as those released for medical or psychiatric reasons, are called up for duty.

According to the 2018 Military Balance report issued by the International Institute for Strategic Studies, 6.8 Americans out of every 1000 inhabitants are on active or reserve military duty; in Israel the corresponding figure is 78.3 out of every thousand. And although the figure has dropped by close to 15% in the past three decades, 65% of all eligible 18-year-old Israelis are ultimately drafted – including, full disclosure, two of my daughters, who are currently on active duty (and make me proud).

Which means that the Israeli army can still be rightly dubbed a “people’s army.” It is still an all-in-one equalizer, unifier and melting pot for Israelis from all walks of life. Israeli women are recruited for 24 months, while men serve 32 months on active duty and are called up for annual reserve duty until the age of 4o, or 45 if they are officers. Military service is still the number one formative experience in the lives of most Israelis. Their army doesn’t exist on secluded barracks – it is an integral part of their lives.

Hundreds of thousands of Israeli voters served under the command of Gantz, Ya'alon and/or Ashkenazi and many more served with them as they were making their way to the top. This familiarity does not ensure political support for the generals, but it does neutralize many of the suspicions and apprehensions that liberals and moderates in most countries harbor towards military types with political ambitions. Ya'alon is admittedly a strange bird, but Gantz and especially Ashkenazi walk the walk and talk the talk in a way that is immediately relatable for most Israeli adults.

And while the army may have lost the sacrosanct stature it enjoyed in Israeli public opinion following the 1948 War of Independence and 1967 Six Day War - and notwithstanding the increasingly harsh criticism leveled at the army by right-wingers frustrated by its ongoing resistance to Netanyahu’s political machinations – it is still the most esteemed of Israel’s public institutions, by far: A recent poll conducted by the Israel Democracy Institute showed that 89% of Israelis trust the army, compared to 68% who trust the president, 52% the police, 33% the media and 16% - a surprisingly large number - who trust political parties.

FILE PHOTO: Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Israeli military chief Lieutenant-General Benny Gantz and Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon attend a news conference at the prime minister's office in Jerusalem, Israel,  August 27, 2014.
\ NIR ELIAS/ REUTERS

Any former chief of staff, never mind three of them together, makes it much harder for Netanyahu to deploy his favorite weapon of maligning his opponents as leftist defeatists en route to treachery, although this hasn’t prevented him from trying. The kind of malignant attacks that repeatedly struck down Shimon Peres, for example, can hardly be effective against three former army commanders with over a century of combined army service between them, a reputation for daring operations and, as Gantz obscenely pointed out during his first days in politics, a proven record of killing Palestinians by the hundreds and thousands.

Never mind that Ya'alon, at least, is a flaming hawk opposed to any and all concessions. The former chief of staff and defense minister was routinely criticized and derided by centrists and leftists for years until he showed up one day on their doorstep as their great white hope and potential savior.

The center-left’s willingness to embrace Gantz and his gang also builds on the army’s emergence in recent decades as a voice of moderation against hot-headed politicians and as a brake on their often belligerent impulses. From Dan Shomron, who rebuffed calls to escalate the army’s response during the First Intifada to the outgoing Gadi Eizenkot, who steadfastly resisted political calls for a more deadly response to Palestinian demonstrators on the Gaza fence, for example, and who earned his place on the right wing’s enemies’ list by refusing to intervene on behalf of Elor Azaria, the soldier sentenced in 2017 to 18 months in prison for killing a wounded terrorist in Hebron.

Over the past ten years, the security establishment successfully blocked Netanyahu’s plans to attack Iran on at least two occasions. The clashes between the prime minister and the security establishment were played out on the front pages of Israeli newspapers, automatically endearing its chiefs to those who are appalled by the direction in which Netanyahu is taking his country. The security establishment, for the time being at least, is on the right side.

In an era marked by what Netanyahu’s opponents perceive as the degradation of Israeli democracy, the decline of its institutions and the erosion of the rule of law, the army’s strict discipline and penchant for playing by the book position its former chiefs as a perfect antidote to the sweeping politicization carried out by Netanyahu and his coalition colleagues. By and large, army officers are often seen as pedantic, “square” and sticklers for rules and procedures. Against the backdrop of Netanyahu’s campaign against Israeli democracy, such traits have acquired a new allure.

The emerging dominance of right-wing populism, with its inherent disdain for norms and traditions, has generated an ironic reversal of traditional political approaches: The conservative right has devolved into an archenemy of the law and constitution it used to swear by, while the moderate left has embraced the law it used to dismiss as an instrument for maintaining the status quo. Netanyahu’s personal campaign to avoid conviction for what his own attorney general considers crimes could be the battering ram with which the Israeli right could destroy the very concept of the rule of law, a long-sought aim of the Jewish settler right.

Finally, there is expediency: Israeli lefties might wish that Israel could elect a moderate centrist with a civilian background who supports peace and protects freedoms, but that Israel doesn’t exist, if it ever did. It will take not one but three former army officers with proven records as warriors to persuade middle of the road Israelis that there is an acceptable alternative to Netanyahu and that the center-left won’t make the dangerous and deadly concessions that the right routinely accuses them of.

Will the triumvirate of top brass suffice? 30 days before the election, no one can say for sure. Everything is possible, which is already a vast improvement. If Gantz miraculously comes out of nowhere to depose Netanyahu and become Israel’s 13th prime minister, one major reason, which encapsulates all of the above, was shown in a clandestinely shot video clip broadcast on Channel 12 on Wednesday night. It showed Gantz, who has refrained from giving interviews to the media, talking to some of his young supporters.

He was self-confident and at ease with himself, as many retired army officers often are. He smiled and told some very Israeli jokes, some lame, others mildly amusing. But the impact of the tape wasn’t so much in what Gantz said but in the way he said it. Gantz, who was born on an agricultural moshav and who spent all of life in the field sounds quintessentially Israeli in a way that the pompous and ever self-conscious Netanyahu could never be. If Gantz wins, it will be because enough Israelis decided it was time to elect one of their own.