How Close Was Israel to a Military Coup?

If there was a 'putsch' against former Defense Minister Barak in the Harpaz affair it should be sought in his efforts to expropriate powers that belong to the entire cabinet.

Amir Oren
Amir Oren
Amir Oren
Amir Oren

After the term “putsch” was first used to describe former IDF Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi’s gathering of intelligence about then-Defense Minister Ehud Barak’s attempts to undermine him, it was stated here that according to such logic, the disclosure of Leah and Yitzhak Rabin’s illegal dollar bank account in Washington was a military coup executed by an army officer passing information to a journalist, who relayed it to the public, which led to action by the attorney general. A captain in the Israel Air Force serving as part of Israel’s military attache staff identified himself years ago as the source who had come across the prime minister’s wife by chance in the bank.

Mention of the affair led to a phone call from the officer, who then told a much more sensational version of the story: He hadn’t been in the bank by coincidence; rather, he had been sent there on the initiative of a brigadier general at IAF headquarters in the Kirya military compound in Tel Aviv. The captain was the wellspring, but the brigadier general, his patron in the air force, was the stream.

The senior officer, who had been close to political figures, cannot respond and deny the allegation; he died years ago. If this is not just a story, it would mean that air force officers contributed to the disclosure of improper behavior on the part of the prime minister, which led directly to his downfall. Except by polygraph, we probably cannot know now whether what was said about the brigadier general by his junior colleague is confession or fiction.

But even if the description of the chain linking the brigadier general to the captain to the reporter is correct, what would be so bad? Is it really forbidden for members of the military, whatever their motives, to follow up information about breaches of the law by public figures, and to spark a chain reaction that leads to the dismissal of such figures from elected office? An ambassador or other senior figure in the foreign service informing on former Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman is kosher, while an officer reporting on Barak is not?

In the Harpaz affair – named for the forger of a document purporting to detail Barak’s plans for a mudslinging campaign against Ashkenazi – Barak wants to focus attention on the relations between Ashkenazi and himself instead of on his own actions vis-à-vis the cabinet. If there was a “putsch” – and the state comptroller determined that there was not – it should be sought in Barak’s efforts to expropriate powers that belong to the entire cabinet. The weakness of the other ministers in the face of these efforts, and that of the prime minister as well, does not make these efforts any less problematic.

Barak tried to redefine the civilian political authority – the cabinet – over the army as “the defense minister.” But in fact, the defense minister is part of that authority, not all of it. Barak demanded that the regulations involving the supreme command, which are even more binding than those involving the Israel Defense Forces General Staff, state that the chief of staff must translate into military action the decisions of the defense minister, and not those of the civilian political authority as a whole. A compromise suggested by the military advocate general and the legal counsel to the defense establishment, requiring the army to carry out “cabinet decisions and decisions of the defense minister,” was accepted last summer after a long delay on Barak’s part. However, it leaves open the crucial question: If the cabinet decisions contradict decisions of the defense minister, which ones should the chief of staff obey?

Even if the prime minister uses his authority to fire the defense minister, 48 hours lapse before the dismissal goes into effect. In those two days, the country can find itself in the throes of a military coup against the government. The democratic checks and balances will depend on the position of the chief of staff, who is the “supreme commander in the army,” according to those same regulations, the existence of which have been concealed from the public until now. This is also a compromise definition of the chief of staff’s role: between “commander of the army” and the “highest level of command in the army,” which is what the Basic Law on the Army states. Yet this is wordplay; the practical meaning of the two definitions is the same. Commander and level of command are the same thing, and the chief of staff is under the command of the cabinet.

It is not surprising that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is insensitive to these weighty constitutional matters. It is worrisome to discover that neither any minister nor the attorney general have addressed the matter with an eye toward keeping some future Ehud Barak from taking private control of the army. Perhaps the cabinet secretary, Avichai Mendelblit, a former military advocate general, will take up the issue.

Ashkenazi, left, and Barak in happier days. Credit: Nir Kafri

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