A Critical Look at Israeli Militarism

In a fascinating and ground-breaking study, Yagil Levy suggests that there's no clear contradiction between the civilian echelon playing a larger role as watchdog of the army and the growing dominance of a militaristic ethos in Israeli society.

Mi Sholet al Hatsava?: Bein Pikuah al Hatsava Leshlita Betsvaiyut (Who Governs the Military? Between Control of the Military and Control of Militarism), by Yagil Levy Magnes Press, 289 pages, NIS 94

Ensconced at home, the armchair sociologist and media consumer who is trying to identify the trends in military-society relations in Israel is liable to become confused. On the one hand, the popularity of Carmela Menashe, the military correspondent of Israel Radio for the past 23 years, is due to her numberless exposures of irregularities, scandals and blunders in the management of the army. The public is apparently grateful for her uncompromising critique of the army's institutions. On the other hand, we have the equally popular military correspondent and analyst of Channel 2 television news for the past 18 years, Roni Daniel. Known for his militant stance and his unflagging advocacy of the use of massive power, Daniel is almost a parody of militaristic macho. So much so, indeed, that his take on bellicose situations is often more extreme than that of military commanders - many of whom he tongue-lashes for what he perceives as their lame attitude.

Benny Gantz in Jordan valley - IDF Spokesman's Office - July 2011
IDF Spokesman's Office

Seemingly, Menashe and Daniel, the leading military correspondents of the two leading electronic-media outlets in Israel, represent contrasting processes in terms of the relations between civil society and the military. Whereas Menashe represents an orientation toward tightening civilian (and female? ) supervision of the army, Daniel stands for a growing militarization of civil society. Whereas she embodies a skeptical approach to the army's performance, he views the army as the central instrument for ensuring that Israel will achieve its goals. On the surface, this is another case of conflicting tendencies developing in parallel in Israeli society, perhaps reflecting societal polarization and the implosion of the "melting pot" concept. That is a logical explanation - simple; but also simplistic.

Yagil Levy, a professor at the Open University, propounds a lucid theoretical framework that explains Menashe and Daniel not as contrasting phenomena but as embodying mutually complementary processes. He puts forward one thesis, under which he subsumes dozens of processes and hundreds of phenomena relating to the complex relations between the army, on the one hand, and civil society and government in Israel, on the other - which at first glance appear to be contrasting, perhaps even on a collision course. From the viewpoint of the sociological study of the military in Israel, this is a meta-theory, a kind of sociological-political version of the "theory of everything" for which physicists have been searching for many years: a single formula that will explain all the physical forces known to science. The book is a tremendous achievement and its readers can look forward to a riveting experience of proceeding from one insight to the next, until a wholeness emerges that imposes order on a seemingly chaotic social universe.

Balance between scales

Levy's central hypothesis is that army-politics relations in Israel derive from a balance between the scale of civil supervision over the army - that is, over the army as an organization, over its administration, including who controls it and who has the power to send it into action; and the scale of civil supervision of militarism, meaning the mechanisms of legitimizing the use of force in international relations. Levy's cogent argument is that in recent years, while civil supervision of the army has intensified, supervision of militarism has grown more lax, and that this is how the balance in the army-politics parallelogram of forces is being preserved. The freedom that was appropriated from the generals as a direct result of greater supervision over the army is returned to them in the form of the militarization of Israeli society, the heightened legitimization of the use of force as a means to solve the country's problems and, consequently, a more central role for the generals in policy making.

Levy starts by analyzing the history of relations between the military and Zionist politics beginning in the 1920s. The idea of institutional supervision - that is, the army's subordination to the political apparatus - had its genesis in the pre-1948 Yishuv (the Jewish community in Palestine ). In this period the Haganah defense force was placed under the control of the party apparatus (unlike the Hashomer guard organization, which operated independently and was disbanded in 1920 and replaced by the Haganah ). The hierarchical arrangement was reinforced after the anti-Jewish riots of 1929, when control over the Jewish militia was transferred to a high command whose composition was decided by the Jewish Agency and the National Council (Va'ad Leumi ), and which gave representation to various workers' parties.

The military's subordination to the political echelon - which continued after the state's establishment - deprived the commanders of the Haganah (and later of the Palmah strike force and the Israel Defense Forces ) of independent judgment about when to use military force. At the same time, this approach vested military activity with a bipartisan character and, as such, with a special status and social legitimacy. In this manner the use of military force became, in Levy's words, "a symbol overshadowing civil politics."

The prestige, image and symbolism were bolstered by the readiness of the middle class of the time (which was largely secular and Ashkenazi ) to make the requisite sacrifices and to transfer human and financial resources to the army. The contribution of the middle class to the army was compensated by the social dominance and privileges it enjoyed, which in turn generated a readiness to make sacrifices, and so on in a self-perpetuating process.

Levy presents the idea of social willingness to make such sacrifices and the benefits received in return by those making the sacrifices in the form of an equation - the "republican equation." Any disturbance of the equation's inbuilt balance, he says, could change the form of supervision over the army or the army's readiness to accept the authority of institutional supervision as embodied by the politicians. At the same time, Levy puts forward the "supervision equation," which examines the quid pro quo that accrues to the army in return for its willingness to subject itself to the mechanisms of civilian control. This quid pro quo, in the form of budget and manpower resources (and perhaps also prestige and status ), creates a dependence of the military on the civil government. If this equation is disturbed and the army does not get what it needs to operate, it may be less prone to accept subordination to the political echelon. To sum up: The civilian government, according to Levy, is a kind of mediating agency that manages reciprocal relations: with the civilian public, which demands a social benefit for its sacrifice; and with the military, which demands resources in return for its subordination.

At this point, Levy ignores - deliberately, it appears - the existence of a political and ideological tradition that obliges the military's subordination to the politicians, a tradition that should override even the violation of an equation of supervision. The implication would appear to be, in Levy's view, that if the civilian government significantly downgrades the resources it makes available to the army, the army will react by rising up and cast off the rules of subordination almost physically, in order to restore balance to the equation. Levy does not speak in terms of a military coup; he suggests milder examples of insubordination, such as direct appeals by the officer corps to the people over the heads of the politicians, and possibly also direct intervention in politics. However, because the law of communicating vessels is at work here, it would seem that he does not rule out the possibility of sharper reactions in the event of extreme violations of the equation.

Preference for military solutions

In any event, Levy's great innovation lies in the inclusion of the issue of supervision over militarism in the society - that is, the extent to which Israeli society tends to prefer military solutions in the international arena over political and other solutions - as a factor that explains and balances changes in the civilian echelon's supervision of the military. He finds that supervision over the army underwent a sea change after the Yom Kippur War of 1973. According to Levy, the period from 1973 to 2000 was characterized by an ongoing violation of the republican equation he posits. "The primary cause of the violation," Levy writes, "was the gradual transformation of Israeli society into a market-economy society. This development consolidated the dominance of the secular middle class even without its having to resort to military sacrifices as a mechanism that legitimizes accessibility to privileges." The consequent diminished readiness of the secular middle class to contribute as in the past to the army's maintenance led to the emergence of extra-institutional supervisory elements, such as civil society organizations, which developed oversight mechanisms with regard to the army or to bargain with the army over policy, service conditions and the like.

In the short term, these developments led to demilitarization, characterized by challenges posed to military thought and the emergence of a civil discourse about war and its price, and also resulted in the first withdrawal from Lebanon and the Oslo process, both of which gave expression to a restraining of the military option by means of a political solution.

However, the decline of the military approach was short-lived. The army reacted to the diminishment of the secular middle class's readiness to make sacrifices by constructing what Levy terms a "new social architecture." In practice, this meant integrating larger numbers of religious and peripheral groups into the army and stepping up the use of technology as a replacement for manpower. These processes, combined with the adoption of a combat doctrine that minimizes the human cost of war in terms of casualties among Israeli soldiers (and, consequently, results in higher civilian casualties on the enemy's side ), restored the threshold of the social readiness for war to the status it had before the transformation that was undergone by the middle class.

Nevertheless, this remilitarization process did not restore the military to its previous place. This is because the new social coalition on which it relies reflects a different - ethno-national - discourse, based on a Jewish-nationalist ethos rather than an Israeli-civil ethos.

The result is the present-day reality. The arena is overloaded with extra-institutional bodies of supervision over the army: B'Tselem, Breaking the Silence, Adalah, the Forum of Battalion and Brigade Commanders, even the Women's Lobby, as well as the media. Extra-institutional supervision is flourishing, but it is focused entirely on the micro-sphere - the army's management - and not on the macro-sphere of the readiness for or choice of the use of military force. Levy terms this "the extension of supervision and the downscaling of its dimensions." In other words, increased supervision of the army and diminished supervision of militarism.

The focus on overseeing the army's management, Levy argues, makes possible the aggrandizement of the army's role in the political arena. A case in point is the occupation: the "micro" supervision "cast its [the army's] activity in a more humane and legal light ... and makes it possible to go on maintaining this model of occupation over time." Indeed, Levy here touches on a dilemma that has engaged human rights organizations in Israel intensively in recent years: Is their struggle actually, if naively, contributing to the longevity of the occupation?

Thus Levy leads the reader to his complex insight, namely that the distancing of the secular middle class from the army was counter-balanced by the appearance of the religious public and communities from the social periphery, while the increased supervision of the army was counter-balanced by the expansion of military thinking and the evaporation of the public debate on the wisdom of the use of power. Examples abound. The "war of choice" discourse, which questioned the legitimacy of the 1982 Lebanon War, disappeared completely during the Second Lebanon War. In 2006, during and after that war, the public was intensively engaged with supervision and control of the army, but only with regard to operational issues - not about the existence of political alternatives to war. The Second Lebanon War perhaps symbolizes the peak of the process of closer supervision of the army, leading, for the first time in Israeli history, to the resignation of a chief of staff as a result of public-civil criticism. However, this does not contradict the fact that two years later Israel launched another war of choice, which represents the height of the militarization process undergone by the country: Operation Cast Lead, in Gaza.

"Absurd as it may sound," Levy writes, "the debates about the use of military force in the Israeli politics of the Yishuv period and the state's first years were more thorough than those that took place in the first decade of the twenty-first century."

Levy's book necessitates conceptual stocktaking by all critics of the use of military force in Israel. His study shows that closer supervision of the army is liable to create the illusion of a restrained military, but blind us to the fact we, as civilians, have been seized by the brutality that should have been restrained, and a tendency to resort to lethal force as a cure for every ailment. Thus, the whole nation is the army, even if not everyone serves in the army.

Michael Sfard, an attorney, is an expert in international laws of war and international human rights law. He is co-author (with Shaul Arieli) of a book about the separation wall, "The Wall of Folly" (Yedioth Books , Hebrew).