Israeli Politics Doesn’t Need More ex-IDF Generals

The experience of top army officers who tried their hand at politics has been negative, on the whole.

All the signs, at least the ones incessantly in the media, indicate that Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi is considering going into politics after he leaves the Israel Defense Forces. Recent surveys show that if he joins the political arena, his chances of heading a winning party and becoming prime minister are greater than those of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and opposition leader Tzipi Livni. So it’s no surprise that interest is being shown in the political, social and even economic arena about Ashkenazi’s future.

I don’t know Ashkenazi, nor am I familiar with his social and political views ‏(and it’s good he has kept them to himself‏). This lack of knowledge also applies to former Chief of Staff Dan Halutz, who is going into politics, and to other top IDF officers who will do so in the future. The following comments, therefore, are not directed at anyone in particular. And of course, these IDF men have the complete right to take up any pursuit they choose after they leave the IDF. My remarks are directed against the growing phenomenon of the involvement of ex-army officers in Israeli politics.

Maj. Gen. Moshe Dayan in digs a trench in the Gaza Strip in 1956.

This is hardly a new trend. Most of the 18 former chiefs of staff took part in politics in some way. They, along with a long list of other senior IDF officers, carried out leading political and social roles. This trend is intensifying; as a result of obvious security circumstances, Israel has become the record breaker in this regard among stable democratic regimes. Small wonder that former top officers find a fast track into politics − most of them were up to their necks in politics during their army service.

The problem is that the experience of top army officers who tried their hand has been negative, on the whole. True, some including Yigael Yadin, Yitzhak Rabin and Ezer Weizman contributed to politics and Israeli society, to one extent or another. Yet when measured in political, social and security terms, the clear majority of former officers such as Moshe Dayan, Rafael Eitan and Mordechai Gur, including some who remain active, were not great successes in critical political roles. Some were outright failures.
There are many causes for the troubles and setbacks these figures face in political tasks. There are three relevant factors. The first is their long term of military service. Armies are not characterized by a democratic structure and spirit, by their very nature. Whether the ex-generals try to or not, they don’t free themselves of their anti-democratic experience after they join the political arena. This fact has harmed Israel’s already damaged democracy, no doubt.

The second factor is the ex-officers’ lack of familiarity with Israel’s fragmented, polarized society. This ignorance derives from the character of their work and the challenges they faced when they were in the military. In their political roles, they have shown an unfamiliarity with deep-rooted social problems. In politics, they have focused on security matters and political issues connected to them. The third factor is that personal ambition, rather than a commitment to society, propels them forward.

In view of Israeli society’s extremely problematic experience with ex-generals in politics, it’s time to stop crowning them automatically, even though, as stated, any discharged IDF soldier has the right to pursue any new career of his choice.