The Army Is Israel's Real Centrist Party

The word ‘centrist’ is a magnet for many voters, and reflects their need for both a strong arm and a desire for peace; a free economy and concern about social issues

IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot speaks at the Herzliya Conference, June 20, 2017.
David Bachar

Over the past year the Israel Defense Forces has turned into the closest thing Israel has to a centrist party. The word “centrist” is a magnet for many voters, and reflects their need for both a strong arm and a desire for peace; a free economy and concern about social issues. Most centrist parties don’t survive more than two or three Knesset terms, but the demand for them remains because they provide a response, even if fictitious, to those who are too shaken by the abnormal Israeli reality.

Although there is no diplomatic arrangement on the horizon, it’s clear that there’s a majority for ideas that have become “centrist,” like dividing the land into two states, retaining the settlement blocs and evacuating isolated settlements in return for ending the conflict. In the absence of such a solution, one is catalogued as either right or left based on one’s approach to the use of military force and ethical questions.

Here one can identify the IDF and even the Shin Bet security service (according to the documentary “The Gatekeepers” and David Bitan, who accused the Shin Bet of timidity) as a sort of centrist party. They are agencies that use force, power and cruelty at times, but also understand the limits of power; they know how to restrain impassioned politicians and save them from themselves (see Avigdor Lieberman’s promise to assassinate Hamas’ Ismail Haniyeh), even at the cost of being labeled leftist.

We saw this in the Iran story, when the heads of the Mossad, Shin Bet and IDF all preferred diplomatic moves to a military operation, which both Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and then-Defense Minister Ehud Barak were seeking, at least according to their declarations. The case of “Hebron shooter” Elor Azaria intensified the conflict – also on account of the IDF in the view of politicians, mostly from the right, who played the part of the inflammatory inciter that portrayed the army and its chief as too soft.

The right’s attitude toward the IDF has changed over the past decade. It started with the Gaza withdrawal, which was perceived as a huge fissure by the ideological right, and manifested itself clearly during the Azaria case and in the responses on the right to former Deputy Chief of Staff Yair Golan’s remarks, in which he said he saw in Israel “trends that arouse dread like they did in Germany.” He was referring to events such as the burning to death of Mohammed Abu Khdeir and the arson attack in Duma that killed three members of the Dewabsheh family. But no one in the right-wing camp wanted to listen and, led by Netanyahu, they hastened to castigate Golan.

The message to the top military brass was clear: Take care of security, and don’t pass judgment on Israeli society. That’s absurd, of course. Senior officers who are responsible for security in the West Bank are expected to shut up when they see things going on that intensify the security problems there. That’s an impossible, unfair mission.

By conducting themselves this way, politicians on the right have positioned the IDF as a centrist party. It’s no coincidence that this is taking place under the most right-wing government we’ve had in 20 years. Unlike the media, the judicial system or academia, which are easy to label as leftist, it’s a little harder with the security establishment, which exerts great force. That’s why they’ve been dropped only to the rank of “centrist.”

Gideon Sa’ar has noticed this, and recently warned a conference of Likud activists against making the army the right’s punching bag. He understands the damage this could do to both the army and the right-wing parties. The centrist political parties – Yesh Atid, Kulanu and Zionist Union – all of which are flirting vigorously with former military chiefs, surely understand this. There’s no better place than the security establishment to recruit the next centrist leaders. The risk is that when it’s time to appoint future chiefs of general staff, right-wing leaders will take this into account.