Not Only Military Men Make Effective Defense Ministers

Parties want generals on their tickets for the upcoming election, but the changing security threat to Israel might make this an outmoded approach.

Moshe Arens
Moshe Arens
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Mordechai Gur, the 10th IDF chief of staff, 1974–1978, sits besides former Prime Minister David Ben Gurion.
Mordechai Gur, the 10th IDF chief of staff, 1974–1978, sits besides former Prime Minister David Ben Gurion. Credit: Archive
Moshe Arens
Moshe Arens

As an election approaches the parties are looking for generals to decorate their candidate lists for the Knesset. Parties that believe they may have to fill the job of defense minister in the next government want to be prepared with one of their own, somebody “who understands security issues” and can deal with the generals on behalf of the government.

Even parties that know they will not be called on to fill the defense-minister slot want to show the public they have someone who “understands security issues.” The assumption is that these security issues are beyond the comprehension of ordinary civilians who have not served as generals in the Israel Defense Forces.

Despite all the emphasis being placed on social and economic issues, the parties know that the public is still concerned about the country’s security, no less now than before. They want the public to believe that with them at the helm the country will be in safe hands — the generals on their tickets will see to that. Presumably the public would not trust a civilian in the job.

Likud does not need to search for a general, it has one: Moshe Ya’alon, the current defense minister and presumably the future defense minister if Likud heads the next government. He has a great record and reached the very top as chief of staff — a lieutenant general. He can surely be trusted to deal effectively with any future threats.

At the moment the Labor Party is searching for someone who can match Ya’alon’s military credentials. Omer Bar-Lev is on their candidate list, but he was only the commander of the vaunted Sayeret Matkal reconnaissance unit and only held the rank of colonel. That does not seem impressive enough, so Labor is still looking for someone of higher rank they can parachute in.

Moshe Kahlon has already found one: Yoav Galant, a retired major general who was for a while a candidate to be chief of staff. It is not likely Kahlon’s Kulanu party will be offered the job of defense minister in the coming coalition government, but who knows? It is best to be prepared. The public will surely be impressed.

The question of whether the defense minister should be someone who held a high rank in the military or someone from civilian life has been debated over the years in Israel. Israel has had some good defense ministers from civilian life, the outstanding being David Ben-Gurion, who prepared the nation for the War of Independence and directed the fighting that achieved victory.

There is a lot to be said for having someone from civilian life step into the job free of the prejudices, preconceived notions and burden of past associations with serving senior officers. This is a clear signal of civilian control over the military.

In the United States, an act of Congress provides that in order to ensure civilian control over the military, no one who has served as an officer in the regular armed forces may be appointed secretary of defense within seven years after relief from active duty. This may be a good example to follow in Israel.

Actually, the Labor Party already has a former civilian defense minister on its ticket: Amir Peretz, who served as defense minister during the Second Lebanon War. Why they are now seeking a high-ranking military officer for that position calls for an explanation.

The rapidly changing threat facing Israel in recent years — the change from the conventional battlefield to one dominated by ballistic missiles and rockets — calls for a drastic revision of the IDF’s force structure and military posture. A civilian as defense minister may be better suited to that task than someone whose life was spent in the military.

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