Prisoners to the Generals

Policy-makers in Israel, more than elsewhere in the Western world, dance to the tunes of the defense establishment

No statesman would launch a war when his generals make it clear that a military defeat is expected. The fact that countries happen to suffer defeat in wars they themselves have instigated indicates that it is not rare for generals to be wrong when it comes to assessing their own military power or estimating the enemy's capabilities.

In 1967, Egyptian generals promised their president at the time, Gamal Abdel Nasser, a resounding victory over Israel. Putting his faith in these promises, Nasser sat with his pilots in Bir-Gafgafa and, with a confident smile, challenged to come and make war. The outcome we know. In six days, the Egyptian army was brought to its knees, the generals' promises had faded in the smoke of battle, and Nasser resigned (withdrawing his resignation soon after in light of "public demand").Saddam Husein's generals promised that their army would defeat Iran in a matter of weeks. The Iraqi president, relying on the assessment of his military experts, launched a blitz war against Iran, a campaign that went on for eight years and claimed the lives of two million Iranians and Iraqis.

But it's not only in the Middle East that generals tend to make empty promises and underestimate their opponents. Hitler's generals presented him with war plans for a Soviet Union campaign and promised a swift and overwhelming victory. Hitler approved Operation Barbarossa, and the German army began its advance on Moscow. The defeat the German army suffered on Soviet ground (with tremendous casualties on both sides) led to the inevitable process of Germany's defeat in World War II.The U.S. entanglement in Vietnam also originated, to a large extent, in unfounded promises made by generals to presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. Incidentally, one of the results of that war was that the U.S. Congress subsequently decided that a president can not declare war without House approval.

There is also no doubt that George Bush's decision to go to war in Iraq relied on the assessments and promises of his generals that victory would be swift and casualties low. This war, which the United States is still trying to end but is getting progressively more stuck in it, points to one of the major problems that lie in the dependence of policy-makers on generals: Senior officers view the world through rifle sights, and on many occasions they tend to disregard the social, cultural, political and regional aspects of the problem they wish to solve by using military force.

In order to reduce the dependency on generals, most modern democracies have established professional control bodies. The duties of such bodies are to examine the army's assessments, its war plans, its intelligence, its recommendations for policy guidelines, and also to suggest alternative policies. An example for such a body is the U.S. National Security Council.

Parliaments in Western democracies also often serve as effective control instruments. Parliament committees monitor military activity, examine army plans and provision processes, and ask for full reports on war plans. Occasionally, these committees publish professional reports on combat doctrines, army provision, and defense budget management. In the U.S. Congress, committees even call hearings for generals in which they testify under oath.

And this is precisely the difference between us and the others: While in all other democracies, a certain dependency of policy-makers on generals is apparent, together with attempts to reduce it, in Israel, the case is not only one of dependency but the fact that our policy-makers are held captive by the generals.

The security policy-making process is in fact the domain of the Israel Defense Forces and the defense establishment. In the absence of non-IDF national security planning bodies, the major part of the planning - not only operational and tactical planning but also strategic and political planning - is done within the army.

The result is that military considerations have often become more dominant than political ones. Thus, Israel's foreign policies have come to be based on an essentially belligerent perception that favors military considerations over diplomatic ones. Violence is seen not only as a legitimate instrument in international affairs, but almost as the only means that can bring positive results.

As a result, the chief of staff in Israel is afforded power that exceeds that of his counterparts in other Western armies. He is the one to decide on the policy recommendations that will be presented to the prime minister and his ministers. This, of course, gives him great political power.

In general, the Knesset and the government do not intervene in the operations of the defense establishment, which enjoys almost full autonomy when it comes to policy-making - beginning with major issues such as the size and content of the defense budget, and including even the formulation of war plans that are presented to the government for approval only after the planning is done.

Therefore, it is no surprise that to this day, two weeks after the outbreak of the second Lebanon war, the Knesset has not held even one session on the conflict, its objectives, and the IDF operations.It all started in the time of David Ben-Gurion, who throughout his terms as prime minister and defense minister opposed the establishment of a civilian control system over the defense establishment. Civilian control was replaced by his own charismatic control, which relied both on his status as prime minister and defense minister, and on his being the supreme authority on defense in the country.

Ben-Gurion also long opposed the establishment of a ministerial committee for security affairs. He consented only in 1953, but continued even after to keep the ministers out of the security policy-making process. One example is the Sinai War, the preparations for which were kept a secret from the members of the committee.

It is true that not all of Ben-Gurion's successors enjoyed his authority on security, but the pattern remained the same. The civilian element did not even try to assume any control or supervisory role over the army, which enjoyed a free range in its operation and planning. In actual fact, the defense establishment shaped Israeli policy, and did not always bring it before the government to be approved.

[Things are taking place [in the defense establishment], said former prime minister Moshe Sharet with much frustration, "that do not come to my attention. I hear announcements on Israel Radio and later read about them in the paper, without knowing their true background".

Sharet was referring to the retribution actions the IDF carried out in the 1950s, some of which were not even brought before the prime minister beforehand.

One of the Knesset members' major duties should have been the overseeing of of the defense establishment, and instead they were escaping it like the plague. The Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee is at best a rubber stamp for army decisions. Even the most effective controling device, budget allotment, was not used by Knesset members.

"Obviously we must trust the General Staff when it tells us there is a need for extra rockets or tanks, even if there is someone in the committee that thinks different", explained former Knesset member Israel Kargman, who served for many years as chairman of the Knesset Finance Committee. "Who are we to make that decision? We know nothing about this."When one analyzes Israeli policy since the country's establishment, only four cases come up in which the prime minister came up with something that the army did not suggest or approve of. Three of these cases involve ex-generals as prime ministers; and in the fourth instance, the prime minister was backed by two generals in his government.

In 1977, Menahem Begin decided on a peace agreement with Egypt that came with a price - the withdrawal from Sinai, which sparked opposition from IDF commanders. But Begin enjoyed support from then defense minister Ezer Weizman and the foreign minister at the time, Moshe Dayan, both former generals. Yitzhak Rabin, a former chief of staff, decided to go along with the Oslo Accords in 1993, despite opposition from the army. Ehud Barak, also a former chief of staff, took the IDF out of Lebanon, despite very loud and public protests by army commanders. And Ariel Sharon, another general, decided on the Gaza disengagement plan and its execution despite strong objection from former chief of staff Moshe Ya'alon and his senior officers.

In all other cases, decisions regarding national security were based on proposals the IDF placed on the prime minister's desk.

The current events followed the exact same pattern. The abduction of the soldiers in the north gave rise to a need "to do something." The prime minister and his government had only army assessments, intelligence the army presented to them, and the ready war plans before them. In fact, they had no other alternative but to approve what the IDF suggested for there is no other body or mechanism that can come up with suggestions for a policy in Lebanon.

This is precisely what happened 24 years ago. In a government session on June 5, 1982, in which the ministers voted on launching an offensive in Lebanon, they faced only two options: Approve the IDF and defense minister's proposal to go to war, or don't approve it. Since the government found it hard to disperse with no action set in motion, especially when faced with a security issue that had to be addressed, it chose to approve the alternative suggested by the defense establishment.I find it fitting to close with words written in the 1960s by Yigal Allon, one of Israel's few politicians who tried to both influence the shaping of the national security policy and to deal with defense issues with other than military means: "The need to defend the country against aggression, the military confrontations on the borders... the military achievements, the mass drills... all of these create an atmosphere that necessarily harbors acute social and moral dangers. The danger of the spreading of chauvinist and vulgar militarism is a real danger in Israel... The culture of arms bears with it the danger of losing social, moral and cultural values, to the point of the blurring of the nation's image as an enlightened society... This applies to all civilians and the youth, and also military personnel, who may be intoxicated by the very charm of involvement with arms."