Opinion

An American General to Head the Israeli Military?

The answer lies in whether it was right to appoint the Wharton School’s Amir Yaron to run the central bank

Prof. Amir Yaron / Gen. David Goldfein.
Wharton School of Business, Molly Riley / AP

Consider the following suggestion. Instead of appointing an Israeli major general its next chief of staff, what if the prime minister and defense minister tapped Gen. David Goldfein, the head of the U.S. Air Force?

His attributes are countless. He has major experience in the war against extremist Islamist forces. He’s a leading expert in highly advanced warfare. He has experience commanding one of the world’s largest military forces.

As someone who commanded forces in the Gulf War and in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, he is highly familiar – even more so than any Israeli candidate – with the threats in the Middle East.

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In an era requiring cooperation among various militaries, he has personal ties with Arab and Western army chiefs and is highly regarded in Cairo, Riyadh, Doha, Moscow and Washington. He knows the Israel Defense Forces – including the air force – well from years of joint exercises and the close ties between the two militaries.

He has a good reputation in Israel and is not associated with any particular camp in the IDF General Staff, meaning that if he were appointed chief of staff, none of the other candidates for the job would resign. And the best part? He’s not viewed as suspect by any politician, as the other candidates are.

True, even though he’s Jewish and has visited Israel often, he’s not really fluent in Hebrew, but he’d be expected to master it relatively quickly, as Stanley Fischer did when he was appointed governor of the Bank of Israel.

So what do you say? Does it sound strange? Do you perhaps think it doesn’t make sense if the man leading our children into battle was someone who didn’t spend most of his life here?

But why? After all, we have long known that being a soldier is a profession, certainly in our technical age. Many people think that in the 21st century, being a soldier requires professionalism unrelated to the country or society. A good soldier is a good soldier anywhere, certainly when it comes to managing two Western armies similar in their culture and operations.

If that’s the case, isn’t it preferable that every Jewish mother in Israel would know that she has placed her son’s fate in the hands of the best commander there is?

I think the answer is obvious: No. Such an approach doesn’t make sense.

Such a general may be the best person in his field, and it’s possible the IDF’s major generals could learn a lot from him, but either way, the man heading the IDF should be someone who has spent most of his life with us carrying the stretcher that is the State of Israel.

We should prefer that whoever decides if we go into battle is someone whose children have served or are serving in the military with our children, and that the person be someone whose grandchildren would have to enter the security shelters if the sirens went off, as our grandchildren would. That’s not only morally more correct but also essential from a professional standpoint.

Also, the appointment of someone such as Gen. Goldfein would be a slap in the face for Israeli major generals who have devoted their lives to the military (and would now be considered second-rate). And it would damage the military’s ability to develop future generations of commanders.

And anyone who doesn’t know Israeli society from within, including the entire range of its sensitivities, schisms and fears, can’t provide the best military defense. He wouldn’t really understand the society, whose cohesion is a critical component in any military approach.

That’s true with defense and it’s true with the economy. As a result, despite his apparently excellent credentials, I think the choice of Prof. Amir Yaron, who hasn’t lived here for more than 20 years, as the next Bank of Israel governor, one of the country’s most important positions, is a mistake.

It’s not right for someone who has known Israeli society only through rumors (from friends or the media) to be the one to make critical socioeconomic decisions for us. In this respect too, professionalism is dependent on the society to which it’s applied, as we’ve seen with officials’ failure in other countries to replicate American economic policies.

Any type of leadership – military, economic or otherwise – requires you most of all to speak the language of the people you’re leading. In Israel, that doesn’t just mean speaking Hebrew, but above all speaking Israeli. And Israel, as anyone who hasn’t lived here for many years can attest, is a hard language to learn. Even very hard.