“The Israeli army does not have a state!” Ariel Sharon declared this week, after the Chief-of-Staff tried to create a fait accompli behind his back.
I am not sure that Sharon knows where this phrase comes from. It was coined by the Count Honore de Mirabeau, one of the instigators of the French revolution, in his essay about Prussia. After stating that “war is the national industry of Prussia”, Mirabeau said that while in other countries the state has an army, in Prussia the army has a state.
It has been said more than once that Israel is the “Prussia of the Middle East”. I have tried to analyze the origins of this similarity.
The Prussian state came into being after a holocaust, before which it was just another small German state, called Brandenburg at the time. In 1618, the Thirty Years War broke out, killing a third of the German people and devastating most of its towns and villages. It left behind a trauma that has not yet entirely disappeared.
In the Thirty Years War almost all the major European armies took part, and all of them fought each other on German soil. Germany is located in the middle of Europe and has no natural boundaries. No sea, no desert and no mountain chain defend it. After the calamity, the leaders of Prussia drew the obvious lesson: if we have no natural barriers to defend us, we must create an artificial barrier in the form of a regular, big and efficient army. That’s how the Prussian army came into being, a force that was designed to defend the fatherland, and in the course of time became the terror of its neighbors, until, in the end, it became the Nazi army ironically called the Wehrmacht é the “defense force”.
Israel is faced with a similar dilemma. Zionism was, in the beginning, a small and weak movement, rejected even by the majority of the Jews. When the first Zionists came to this country, they were surprised to find here a population that did not agree to turn its homeland over to another people. It resisted violently, and the Zionists defended themselves as well as they could.
Then came the Holocaust and annihilated a third of the Jewish people. It gave Zionism a tremendous impetus. The movement was seen as a valiant effort by the Holocaust survivors to redeem themselves. By the same measure, Arab resistance grew. The Zionists needed to create an “Iron Wall” (as Ze’ev Jabotinsky phrased it) against the resistance, a “defense force” strong enough to withstand the onslaught of the entire Arab world. Thus the IDF was born and, in the war of 1948 conquered some 78% of Mandate Palestine, and in the June 1967 war the remaining 22%, as well as great chunks of the neighboring countries. Since then, the “defense force” has become an army of occupation.
In the Second German Reich there was a popular saying, “der Soldate / ist der beste Mann in Staate” (The soldier is the best man in the state.) In Israel, the slogan was “The best go to the Air Force”. In the young state, the army attracted the best and the brightest. The attitude towards the senior officers sometimes bordered on idolatry.
From the time the state was established until today, the generals have controlled the media, both by means of strong personal relations with the editors and by a complex network of army spokesmen masquerading as “our military correspondent”, “our Arab affairs correspondent” (generally former army intelligence officers) and “our political correspondent’.
Foreign observers have frequently asked whether a military coup could occur in Israel. That’s a silly question, because a coup is quite unnecessary. Since its early days, the army command has had a decisive influence on national policy, and its members have occupied key positions in the Israeli democracy, in a way unimaginable in any other democratic state.
A few facts may suffice: of the 15 chiefs-of-staff who preceded Mofaz, two became prime ministers (Rabin, Barak), four others became cabinet ministers (Yadin, Bar-Lev, Eytan, Lipkin-Shahak). Two prime ministers were past leaders of the pre-state armed underground organizations (Begin, Shamir), and one a former Director General of the Defense Ministry (Peres). Two generals became Presidents of Israel (Herzog, Weizman). In the present government there are five generals (Sharon, Ze’evi, Vilnai, Sneh, Ben-Eliezer.)
Former generals have always been allotted the key economic positions and have controlled almost all big corporations and state services. Many generals became mayors. The entire political-military-economic-administrative class in Israel is full of generals.
The dispersal of the generals among different political parties does not change anything. This is proved by the fact that many generals, upon leaving the army, were offered leading positions in both major political parties é Labor and Likud é and chose one or the other according to the price offered. Some wandered from one party to another (Dayan, Weizman, Sharon, Mordecai). At the beginning of the present Knesset, four political parties were headed by generals (Likud by Sharon, Labor by Barak, Merkaz by Modecai, Moledet by Ze’evi). The religious camp has, until now, been bereft of generals, but with the appearance of the far-rightist, Effi Eytam, this will be corrected.
There would have been nothing bad in all this if it would have been only a personal and professional phenomena. But the problem is much more serious, because all the governing generals have a common mentality. All of them believe in the policy of force, annexations and settlements, even if some of them are less extreme than others. The exceptions can be counted on the fingers of one hand, and some would say on one finger (the late Matti Peled).
In this respect, there is no difference between active and retired officers. All of them together have always formed a kind of super-party, directing the political establishment. Not because they are organized and decide together, and not because of their strong social bonds, but because of their uniform way of thinking, which leads them almost automatically to the same conclusions in any given situation é irrespective of their belonging to Likud, Labor, National Union or Merkaz. Not necessarily on every detail, but in the general direction.
One of the results is the neutralization of women in the Israeli political system. Women have no place on the upper echelons of the army and its machoist ethos, which directs all spheres of Israeli policy. (The only outstanding exceptions, Golda Mair, took pride in being “the only man in the government” and surrounded herself with generals.)
All this is being done quite democratically. In the “Only Democracy in the Middle East”, the army gets its orders from the government and obeys. In Israeli law, the government as such is the Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces. But when the government itself is controlled by former generals, this is meaningless.
That’s how it was in the 50s, when the Chief-of-Staff Moshe Dayan imposed on the government a policy of “retaliatory actions” and had it implemented by Major Ariel Sharon. And that’s how it is today, when the same General Sharon imposes the same policy and has it implemented by general Ben-Eliezer, the Minister of Defense, who happens to belong to the rival party. (In democratic countries, it is extremely rare for a Minister of Defense to be a former general.) Sharon’s predecessor, the former Chief-of-Staff Barak, surrounded himself with a bunch of generals, rejecting all civilians.
Lately a new and dangerous development has taken place. Under the leadership of the Chief-of-Staff, Shaul Mofaz, a man with a far-rightist outlook, the army has started to rebel against the “political directives”. It mobilizes the media against the government and makes it responsible for its abject failure in the war against “terrorism”- reminding one of the Prussian generals after World War I who accused the politicians of “sticking a knife in the back of the army”. When Foreign Minister Peres, with the approval of Sharon, recently started to initiate a meeting with Arafat, a “senior military source” leaked to the media that the army strongly objects to all such meetings.
Things reached a climax this week, when the Chief-of-Staff decided to create across the Green Line (the pre-1967 border) “closed military areas”, with detention camps and military, Kangaroo courts for Palestinians trying to enter. This means de facto annexation, with far-reaching political, international and national implications.
Sharon, who heard about this while on a state visit in Russia, seethed with anger. A game of accusations and counter-accusations began, with the army leaking secret documents to the media. (“I came across a documenté” a TV commentator announced.)
If this gives the impression that this is a major fight between the government and the army, it’s an illusion. Sharon himself belongs to the military clique more than anyone else. But he has an old grudge against the General Staff, which at the time prevented him from becoming Chief-of-Staff. On top of that, contrary to civilian politicians, he has no inferiority complex when dealing with the generals.
This is a fight within the family. There are no real differences of opinions between Sharon and Mofaz. Both believe in the same policy of enlarging the settlements and preventing any compromise with the Palestinian people. Both believe in the maxim “If force doesn’t work, use more force”. Both are moving towards escalation and more escalation.
In the Weimar republic after World Wart I, there was a saying: “The Kaiser went, the generals remained”. In Israel, the government changes hands from time to time, but the generals always remain.