E03 — Why is Israel’s military more moderate than its politicians

The IDF Chief of Staff at a Knesset committee meeting (Photo by: Jonathan Zindal)

Hi everyone and welcome to episode three of The Israel Podcast. I’m Avishay Ben Sasson Gordis and today I’ll be discussing a question asked by listeners: “Why is Israels military more moderate than its politicians?”.

In the last few weeks, the streets of Israel were plastered with campaign ads crying to “save the IDF”.

If you happened to visit Israel a decade and a half ago when the call went out to politicians to “let Tzahal win”, you may have been excused if you thought that the new campaign about saving the army was a cry for more use of force against terror. But you would have been wrong. This is a campaign led by a subsection of the religious national sector against the army, following a series of progressive moves on the part of the Israeli high command to integrate women into combat units, and other roles.

How and why this became an issue for those religious-zionists is a conversation for another day. Today I’d like to focus on something else this story reveals, and that is that not for the first time, the Israeli security establishment ends up on what Americans would identify as the liberal side of the political divide. 
 
 This is by no means a new phenomenon. Last year, the majority whip, MK David Bittan, said the following in a public event: “There’s something about the position of Mossad and Shin Bet chief, something that makes them lefties”. Lefties being the ultimate insult in today’s Israeli politics. The same Bitan, by the way, lashed yesterday at a Knesset committee, at the family of a fallen soldier form the 2014 Gaza war who critiqued him. But let’s get back on track. An overwhelming majority of former heads of Israeli security have come out against government policies that they sometimes helped implement, and some of them, notably legendary Mossad chief, Meir Dagan, and Shin Bet chief, Yuval Diskin, have spoken in very harsh terms against Netanyahu personally.

The range of issues on which the security community in Israel could be considered quote unquote “moderate” is wide.

First, on social issues, the army has been traditionally open to LGBTQ. While in some combat units there is sometimes still a stigma involved with coming out, this is gradually decreasing. with some units, in the intelligence corps especially, being famous for their acceptance of LGBT soldiers and officers including those with same sex families, and at the highest ranks.

The Israeli military has been officially accepting of LGBTQ individuals long before don’t ask don’t tell was done away with in the US. Israel is sometimes blamed for using this for pinkwashing purposes, but the fact is that the IDF is more liberal than the average Israeli on the matter. Recent spats between IDF high command and religious leaders have focused on this issue as well as on the integration of women and the general positive approach the high command tries to instill — to varying degrees of success — towards causes linked to the feminist movement.

And while Tzahal has been known to take a fairly liberal stance on social issues this is not the only area where its considered more moderate than the political system. This extends to matters of national security as well. The two most notable issues are the Israeli response to the Iranian nuclear program, and the conflict with the Palestinians.

On the Iranian issue, it by now a well established fact that the heads of the Israeli security community, IDF and its intelligence corps, Mossad and Shin Bet, all argued against a military strike in Iran, contra Netanyahu’s strong push for it. Without their support Netanyahu found it hard to convince other politicians of the wisdom of such action. The security leadership also seemed to wince at Netanyahu’s alarmist tone regarding the issue, with its constant reference to the holocaust. Finally, while the official Israeli intelligence community was careful to express its reservations with the Iran Deal struck by the Obama administration, those were no where near the denouncements of the deal coming from the political system. Many past security officials have even come out squarely in favor of the deal. Finally, since the deal, several leaders of Israeli security organizations have stated that Israel faces no existential threat, thus responding to the political refrain that Iran was exactly such a threat.

The second issue in which the security establishment, and more pronouncedly its former members, seem to be to the left of the political system is the Palestinian issue. About a month ago, the most recent former head of the Mossad, Tamir Pardo argued that Israel’s policy on the Palestinian issue was extremely near sighted, and that absent a deal with the Palestinian the entire situation in a ticking time bomb. This might seem like a fairly standard position in the discourse about the Israeli-Palestinian situation, but coming from a Mossad head appointed by Netanyahu and serving under him, this is a challenge to the current creed that guides Israeli policy on the matter which holds that the status quo is preferable to any of its alternatives. Even the recently retired head of the Shin Bet, Yoram Cohen a religious Zionist himself, said in an interview to the right-wing newspaper Makor Rishon (Israel’s WSJ to Haaretz’s NYT) that Israel should curtail settlement building because separation from the Palestinians is a core national interest. Responses from the paper’s regular pundits, and even the interviewer, made it clear that even such a modest proposal was contentious. Pardo and Cohen thus joined recent chiefs of staff and their own predecessors on this point. Not to mention the famous documentary “the Gatekeepers” that came out in 2012 in which six former Shin Bet heads spoke against the occupation.

Since I’m still working on a website, I’ll link for all of these statements in the comments on my personal Facebook page and on the podcast’s soundcloud page.

The divide between the political and the security echelons seeps into matters of daily conduct. With ministers and members of Knesset calling for a ruthless approach to the Palestinian terror wave that began in late 2015 and the army (with the support of Netanyahu and then Defense minister Yaa’lon) holding back against calls to use more force and indiscriminate punishment methods.

This issue culminated with the trial of El’or Azaryah, the soldier who executed a neutralized terrorist in Hebron last year. Azaryah was caught on tape and put to trial for manslaughter with many in the political system expressing support for him and outrage against the military for trying him. After his conviction in January, calls immediately came out to pardon him. In the process of supporting Azaryah, politicians and members of the public both explicitly and implicitly harshly criticized the army and its chief of staff Eisenkot for pursuing the case. Similar criticisms were voiced against the Shin Bet for its treatment of Jewish terror suspects it was investigating for the murder of the Dawabsha family in the summer of 2015.

It’s interesting to note that despite these cases, public trust (among Jews at least) in the military remains high. The Israel democracy institute runs an annual democracy survey where among other things they ask about trust in public institutions. Within the Jewish population trust in the military was at 90% in 2016, far ahead of the next institution in line which was the presidency with 68%. Among the Arab population, trust in the IDF is second to the supreme court with the court at 52% and the IDF at 32%. It remains to be seen what the data for 2017 looks like.

Now that we know in what ways the military is more moderate than the government its worth asking why this is the case. Here we can speak of four main explanations:

First we have Personal issues;

Second, professionals VS ideologues;

Third, organizational culture;

Fourth, old vs new elites.

The first explanation was best laid out in a piece published in Politico last year by the fantastic journalist Amir Tibon (whom you should follow on twitter). Tibon argues that this gap we’ve been discussing has a uniquely personal aspect to it with Netanyahu feeling that since he first became Prime minister in 1996, the security establishment has been in his way. He thus seeks to weaken it, so it no longer threatens his political prospects, and Tibon argues he’s been quite successful at it. This is a compelling picture, but it still assumes that there are differences of substance between the camps, and it doesn’t by itself explain why the security establishment seems to be at odds with the entire Israeli right and not just with Netanyahu. Tibon dresses these issues, and I recommend you read his piece, but for now let’s leave at that.

The second explanation, is that the security experts are somehow more informed about the issues than the politicians are, or than the public to which politicians are responding is. That is, if we return to David Bitan’s quote about ‘something happening to them”, then that something would be encounter with reality. Those who have faced the challenges posed by the occupation of the Palestinians had to acknowledge its futility, and were forced out of their ideological stances. Those who know the privileged information about Iran or the Palestinians can’t take the positions available to politicians vying with each other on who will produce a stronger and more provocative sound bite. Another element of this is that while politicians have to contend with the entire spectrum of political opinions and identities in Israel, placating religious groups, right wing groups and all other manner of constituents, the military as well as other security organizations, is hierarchical, and so can afford to take positions that account less for public opinion.

A third explanation is that its not about responding to the world as much as it is a process of acculturation. It isn’t necessarily that security experts know something others don’t it’s just that the pressures of 20 or 30 years in the system will push everyone towards moderation, regardless of how they came in. In Bitan’s view, the something that happens, is just being in these organizations. You can start as far right as you would like, but the social pressures will move you to the center and its going to remain this way.

The fourth and final explanation is that what we’re seeing is the demise of old elites. Unlike politics where the turnover rate is quite high, those in the higher echelons of the army, mossad or Shin Bet started out 30 years ago when Israel was to the left of where it is today. With the rising number of national-religious officers, traditionally from right wing and pro-settler background, in the ranks, once a small minority and today the lion’s share of combat officers, we’re headed towards a change in this atmosphere.

I don’t have an answer as to which of these explanations is the correct one, it’s probably some combination. Time will tell. As more right wing officers rise through the ranks we will be able to see if the traditional moderation of the Israel’s security community persists or flips.

While I haven’t really given you a decisive answer to question I opened with, I hope this does shed some light on the issue, and how it reverberates through Israeli politics. Join me again in two weeks and feel free to continue the conversation on my Facebook page or on soundcloud, where I’ll be posting the links I mentioned throughout. You can also follow me on twitter @avishaybsg