Israel's Democratic Garrison State Turns 60

Not counting anti-terrorist actions, the Israelis have fought seven wars since their independence: the 1948-1949 War of Liberation, the 1956 Suez War, the 1967 Six Day War, the 1968-1970 War of Attrition, the 1973 Yom Kippur War, the 1978-2000 Lebanon War, and the 2006 Second Lebanon War. After each of them they have concluded, in the words of the novelist Moshe Shamir, that "Between us and death stands Zahal. Only Zahal."

Zahal is the Hebrew acronym for the IDF, the Israel Defense Forces.

Except for small minorities on the secular left and religious right, Israelis feel that the responsibility for defending and dying for their country must never be left entirely to volunteers. That duty must be spread as evenly as possible throughout the social classes. In the words of Mordechai Bar-On, a former Chief Education Officer of the Israel Army, they adhere to "the sacred principle of the universal draft." Vietnam led Americans to the opposite conclusion: We do not think that a universal draft is sacred. We have rationalized that our democracy requires an all-volunteer military.

The prestige of Israeli army officers is high. When I was living and teaching in Jerusalem, one of my neighbors stopped me in the street one day to tell me that her son had just been accepted into the Israel Air Force as a flight cadet. She was the wife of a professor, a much more esteemed profession in Israel than in America. This Jewish mother buttonholed me, and everyone else who would listen, to tell us about "my son the  pilot," not "my son the professor," "my son the doctor," or "my son the lawyer." A few years later, one of Israel's richest men invited me to his seaside villa to celebrate his son's surviving flight school. And my oldest Israeli friend called recently to share with me the news that the son of his daughter, a renowned Israeli pediatric oncologist, had been admitted not to medical school, but to the Air Force's flight school. 

There is another reason why the Israeli military enjoys high esteem and why so many plum post-retirement jobs go to its former senior officers. Except for high tech, and compared to other institutions, the military is the most meritorious and efficient sector in Israel, as indicated by the following anecdote: 

One day, the IDF chief of staff asked David Ben Gurion, Israel's founding prime minister and first minister of defense, for an urgent meeting. Ordinarily, the general came to the point quickly. But this time he had trouble doing so.  Finally, he said to Ben Gurion: "Your son Amos is a major and he wants to make the regular army his career. But as you know, the big jump in Zahal is from major to lieutenant colonel. After long and heated discussion, both the promotion board and the general staff have concluded that Amos just doesn't have what it takes to go farther up the ladder, and we are going to transfer him from the regular army to the reserves. I asked to see you now so that I could tell you this in person before you saw the written list in the morning." 

As the tale continues, Ben Gurion shot through the roof, flew around the world twelve times, circled the moon twice, and came back to earth in a flaming rage, shouting at this visitor in his highest of high-pitched voices: "In the midst of constant attacks from our neighbors, I am trying to teach Jews from eighty countries how to live in a renascent Jewish state. And you, my dear general, are charged with defending that state. The two of us will never succeed if we allow proteksia [Israeli Hebrew for influence, favoritism, nepotism, cronyism, or pull] to corrupt the army. I am angry. I'm angry because you and your colleagues spent so much time agonizing about how I would react to your ending my son's career. If you think he isn't good enough, then he isn't good enough. Zeh lo esek sheli [That's not my business.]. If you ever come to see me about such a matter again, I'll sack you and the whole damn general staff. Now, get out of here and worry about our other soldiers."

Israel's soldiers are keen on the army because it relates to them, reflects them, and separates them from some of the mores of their elders. As Amnon Rubinstein put it in the newspaper Haaretz, "All the deficiencies to be found in the veteran political leadership -- historic rights, petrified dogmatism, lack of contact with the people, language and style dating from the past -- do not exist in Israeli army leadership." Prof. Rubinstein's characterization of the older generation is true, but unfair. For the men of yesteryear treated Israel's senior officers very well. They entice them into the upper reaches of business, banking, the civil service, university administration, and politics. Former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, his immediate predecessor Ehud Barak, the assassinated prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, the late deputy prime minister Yigal Allon, the former defense minister Shaul Mofaz, the late defense minister Moshe Dayan, and the deceased president Ezer Weitzman are simply the most famous of the generals who "parachuted" -- to use the Israeli phrase -- into high politics and high places. 

There are reasons for this, too. Israeli generals and colonels retire in their 40s and 50s. Most of them look forward to 15 or 20 years in a second career. Yigal Yadin, the chief of staff in the 1948 War of Independence, was only 35 when he retired, got a Ph.D. at the Hebrew University, and then became Israel's most illustrious Biblical archeologist. For their part, Israeli private firms, governmental bodies, and political parries are only too eager to get the ruboff from Zahal's prestige.

But there are only so many high- and high-middle-level jobs in Israel. If more and more of them go to General X or Colonel Y,  fewer and fewer of then are left for Mr. Z or Ms. A. These civilians are bound to be unhappy when they see their career dreams  being shattered by General X or Colonel Y. 

This would be a problem in any society. But it is  particularly vexing in Israel because job advancement there occurs only vertically, never horizontally. Israelis pick their career ladders early and then spend the rest of their working lives climbing the ladders quickly, slowly, or not at all. There  is very little lateral transfer between the ladders. Nothing resembles the American practice of businessmen doing a stint of government service and then going back to industry, only to show up in Washington at some future time. Israeli attorneys don't move back and forth between elective office, appointive office, and their law office. Israeli professors don't take leaves to be government officials and then return to academia. An academic stays in academia. A politician stays in politics. A businessman stays in business. Only ex-Zahalniks are exempt from these unwritten rules. Only they are allowed to jump from the top of one career ladder to the top of another.

While only three former generals (Ehud Barak, Yitzhak Rabin, and Ariel Sharon) have been Israeli prime ministers, nine former generals were U.S. presidents: Dwight Eisenhower, James Garfield, Ulysses Grant, Benjamin Harrison, Rutherford Hayes, Andrew Jackson, Andrew Johnson, Zachary Taylor, and George Washington. Though not a retired general, John McCain, if he beats his Democratic rival in November, will be another former officer who became President of the United States. Yet, no one suggests that these men are the root cause of American militarism. Nevertheless, given the many ex-generals in Israeli politics, the huge amount of money spent on national defense, male and female conscription, compulsory reserve service, and the many wars, it is proper to wonder about Israeli militarism.

With all the uniforms, planes, guns, and tanks, there is no doubt that Israel is militarized. But it is not militaristic, for the dictionary defines militarism as "the predominance of the armed forces in the administration or policy of the state." But in Israel the army does not tell the government what to do; the Israeli government tells the army what to do. 

However, as in most democratic societies, the IDF is involved in the politics of stating opinions and the politics of giving advice. Stating opinions and giving advice -- which may or may not be taken by their political masters -- is precisely what military people are supposed to do. There are senior IDF people who are telling the cabinet and the Knesset that a peaceful solution to the Palestine-Israel problem does not lie in the military arena. And there are other senior IDF people who are telling them that if they don't let the army fight Israel's existential enemies in accordance with the rules of Israel's lousy neighborhood, the Jewish state will not live to celebrate its 120th anniversary.

If there are defects in Israeli democracy, they're  not caused by the army.  The absence of a constitution, the multiplicity of parties, the extreme proportional representation, the reliance on coalitions to form governments, the absence of separation between synagogue and state, the socioeconomic disparities between Arab Israelis and Jewish Israelis, the self-perpetuation of aging politicians (President Shimon Peres is 85), and a civilian bureaucracy that is as bloated as it is inefficient -- all these things are due to Israeli civilians, not to the Israeli army, its leaders, its power, its mission, or its prestige.

Nevertheless, it is always proper to pose questions about Israel's democracy. Are there too many generals in politics? Do they threaten civilian control of the military? Has Israel become a traditional garrison state? Or is it a democratic garrison state? And if the latter, just how democratic is its democratic garrison state? 

The best answers were given by two prominent Israelis. One was the late Yitzhak Nebenzahl, Israel's State Comptroller, and a member of the commission that investigated the intelligence failures prior to the Yom Kippur War. Dr. Nebenzahl was Israel's most respected civil servant. "If the Americans after World War II," he once told me, "could make General George Marshall at one time Secretary of State and at another time Security of Defense -- and if General Dwight Eisenhower could later become President Eisenhower without any damage to civilian control of the American military -- I don't see any great danger if some of our ex-generals become prime ministers and politicians." His assessment also applies to soldier-statesmen like Likud's Ariel Sharon on the right and his predecessor, Labor's Ehud Barak on the left.

But the more poignant response about the military in Israeli society came from Colonel Yosef Caleff, who was the Army Spokesman in the early 1970s. He told me: "If I tell my men to march to Damascus, they will follow me blindly. But if I order them to stage a coup and take over the Knesset, the Prime Minister's Bureau, the President's Residence, the Supreme Court Building, the newspapers, and the radio and television stations, they will just stand there and laugh at me." 

The Israeli army's devotion to civilian control and to the peaceful transfer of political power is a wondrous feature of Israeli democracy, a democracy that dates from the earliest days of British Mandatory Palestine. But while a military coup is iutterly unthinkable, there are senior officers who fear, as I do, that, if not soon jettisoned, the military restraint imposed by Israel's present political leaders will lead to the demise of the modern Jewish state.    

Edward Bernard Glick is professor emeritus of political science at Temple University and the author of "Israel and Her Army."