When the Army Is the Moral Compass

The Israeli army, it turns out, has a mind of its own, independent thinking, and responsibility that competes with the irresponsibility of its political activators

Israeli soldiers are seen next to the border fence between Israel and the Gaza Strip as Palestinians protest on the Gaza side of the border, Israel, November 2, 2018.
REUTERS/Amir Cohen

The egoistic speeches of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Education Minister Naftali Bennett created the impression that they are competing not for political leadership but for control of the army. As though it were a personal toy that is only waiting for someone to wind it up some more and catapult the army further. Both are convinced that “their” army can fulfill any mission, that it is prepared for any scenario and that it will carry out any order coming from its programmers.

To really understand Israel and the Middle East - subscribe to Haaretz

But the army, it turns out, has a mind of its own, independent thinking, and responsibility that competes with the irresponsibility of its political activators. After all, only a moment ago, in the eulogies for Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman delivered by military and political commentators, the minister’s total irrelevance in the face of a consolidated military elite that ignores him was fully exposed: Lieberman spoke, and the army did as it pleased.

Bennett bemoans the fact that the diplomatic and political weights placed on the army’s feet prevented it from doing what is necessary. But this is the same army that reared up and opposed a comprehensive military operation in Gaza, the same army that recommended a significant easing of the pointless siege against Gaza, and in the past opposed the intention of attacking Iran, the same army whose chief of staff did not hesitate to confront politicians who demanded that the Israel Defense Forces drop bombs on those who released incendiary balloons, and who called Elor Azaria (the soldier who shot an incapacitated terrorist) a criminal.

This army has been forced to be a political army, and its chief of staff finds himself in the role of the “manipulator,” whose worldview dictates not only strategic and diplomatic decisions, but also gives rise to political disputes.

Anyone who read the report of IDF ombudsman Maj. Gen. (res.) Yitzhak Brick – who harshly criticized the army’s state of preparedness for war – can wonder whether to question the decisive assertion that the IDF really is prepared for any scenario and for any war, and only a political decision is preventing it from fulfilling its full potential. The operation in Gaza that went awry, which gave rise to the most recent confrontation, once again proves that the dream of the perfect army, free of failures and mistakes, is liable to ensnare an entire country. No revolution that Bennett promised to bring about in the army, as did his colleague Ayelet Shaked in the Justice Ministry, can change this reality. Because only the army can explain to the defense minister and the prime minister the limits of power, define the dimensions of the threats and dictate the size of the budget.

But what the army holds in its hands is not only the authority to determine the order of priorities of the strategic threats. With great chutzpah, it has permitted itself to define the scale of values in whose context it is willing to act. When Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot explained to Bennett that bombing those who released balloons is opposed to “my ethical and military opinion,” it was not political constraints that led to that declaration, but his responsibility for the character of the army. That is how the army has built itself as a fourth branch of government, the moral authority, alongside the legislative, judicial and executive authorities.

Herein lies the paradox of Israeli democracy: The army, the war machine that by its very nature is supposed to stretch the boundaries of morality to their utmost, is turning into the country’s moral compass. That can happen only in a country in which the civilian leadership runs riot, crushes the judicial authority, legislates in an orgy of ultra-nationalism, denigrates human rights and worships power. Only in such a situation can the temple of power, the army, appoint itself the high priest who dictates society’s values.

Although the arm wrestling between Netanyahu and Bennett over control of the army looks like a political struggle, it is the real threat to the last enclave of sanity. Netanyahu’s success at forcing Bennett to give in is only a coffee break in the battle for control of the IDF.