The Army has a State


One of the rich men in the Jewish state died. Jewish tradition demanded that somebody eulogize the deceased, dwelling only on his virtues. But nobody in town was ready to say a good word about this hated person.

At last a merciful Jew volunteered and said: “We all know that the deceased was an evil, cruel and greedy man. But compared to his son, he was an angel.”

I am tempted to say the same about Shaul Mofaz, who left the office of the Chief-of-Staff a few days ago. He was a bad and overbearing army commander, holding primitive and cruel views, who failed abysmally in his task of providing security. But compared to his successor, “Boogie” Ayalon, he was wonderful.

In Israel, the change of chiefs-of-staff is more important than the change of presidents. Only the Prime Minister is more important than the chief-of-staff, because the army has immense influence on every sphere of life.

Mirabeau, one of the fathers of the French Revolution, coined the phrase: “Prussia is not a state that has an army, but an army that has a state.” Does this apply to Israel, too?

In theory, the Israeli army is subject to the political leadership. We are a democracy, after all. The elected government makes the decisions, the army executes them. That is how it should be. But reality is far more complex.

First of all, the political and economic elite is full of former generals. Of the fifteen chiefs-of-staff who preceded Mofaz, two have themselves become Prime Ministers. The present Prime Minister is a general, and, after the assassination of General Ze’evi, the minister for tourism, four generals remain in his cabinet. It is nice to believe that once a general takes his uniform off, he also discards his military approach, but this is an illusion. A general remains a general, a member of a close-knit group that has an almost identical approach to all the state’s problems.

Israel is the only country in the democratic world in which the army commander attends all cabinet meetings. Frequently, he also brings with him the chief of the army intelligence branch (known by its Hebrew acronym, AMAN.)

In the past, the Chief-of-Staff’s influence on government deliberations was an undeclared fact. But Mofaz has brought it into the open, often dictating his views to the cabinet openly. When he declared that, according to his “professional” view, something should or should not be done, no minister had the guts to contradict him. Only General Sharon has dared, infrequently, to reject Mofaz’ proposals. General Ben-Eliezer, the Minister of Defense, has sometimes pretended to do so, but it was no more than a pretense.

No less important is the status of the army intelligence chief. Much as the Chief-of-Staff is the only person allowed to express the “opinion of the army”, the chief of AMAN is the only official in charge of formulating the “national situation evaluation”. No cabinet minister and no member of the Knesset would dare to cast any doubt whatsoever on the AMAN evaluation – in spite of the fact that these evaluations have been proven wrong at every turn in the nation’s history. Suffice it to mention the chief of AMAN’s evaluation on the eve of the Yom Kippur war, which led to a national catastrophe.

The generals have a whip that no politician can dare to ignore: absolute control of the media. Almost all “military correspondents” and “military commentators” are obedient servants of the army command, publishing the briefings of the Chief-of-Staff and his generals as their own opinion. Almost all “correspondents for Arab affairs” are former or present AMAN personnel, publishing AMAN briefings as their own considered views. If a minister dared to reject the demands of the Chief-of-Staff or the evaluations of AMAN, the media would come down on him like a megaton bomb.

In all TV and radio news programs, talk-shows and interview corners, the number of present and former generals, opining on every conceivable topic, is well-nigh incredible.

All this, by the way, is based on the fallacy that military people understand the problems of the state better than others and that they are solely representing the interests of the state, without any personal interest. In reality, the military technician is an expert in his field like a plumber or a physician, for example. Much as the plumber understands the technicalities of sewage disposal and the doctor medical techniques, the senior army officer understands the techniques of applying military force. Naturally, he sees all problems through this lens. This does not make him an expert on state affairs, society, international relations or foreign nations. It certainly does not make him an expert on terrorism, an essentially political phenomenon.

The Israeli army is one of the biggest in the world. It consumes an immense part of the national resources é 15 times more than in the United States, on a per capita basis. It is a mighty economic empire that has a powerful influence on the economy at large (where many of the giant corporations are controlled by former generals). A large part of the defense budget is devoted to the salaries and pensions of regular army officers. (Officers are generally pensioned off with full and generous pensions at the ripe old age of 43.) The salary of a general is higher than that of a member of the Knesset. But may God protect a minister of the treasury who tries to cut the defense budget! He would be denounced immediately as a Destroyer of Israel, one who undermines the Security of the State. As a result, the government is reduced to cutting the social security system, once the pride of the state and now rapidly nearing Third World standards.

Of course, from its earliest times, the army command has had a profound influence on state policy. This is not new. But there is little similarity between the army of 1950 and the army of 2002. Then, most of the officers were Kibbutz-members with liberal and left-wing opinions. This has changed completely. During the 35 years of occupation, a negative selection process has been at work. Humanist, liberally-minded people have been going into high-tech and science and not choosing a military career. The kibbutzniks are disappearing, instead settlers and religious nationalists are gradually filling the senior ranks.

Nowadays, the vast military establishment, in and out of uniform, constitutes a super-party, nationalist and war-like, which believes in the application of force as the solution for all problems. It favors the occupation and is intimately linked to the settlers. By its very nature it is anti-Palestinian, anti-Arab and therefore anti-peace. The total conformity prevalent in the army ensures the whole army thinks like Mofaz and Ya’alon. Any officer who thinks otherwise would be on the way out.

Cynics might say it is all a matter of built-in interest: the power, influence and privileges of the senior officers are based on the critical security situation, the ongoing occupation and the never-ending war. Naturally, they use their ine; ence to perpetuate and escalate this situation. Less cynical people will say that the military mentality itself tends in this direction: if one believes that sheer force is the solution to all problems, one almost automatically pushes the state into a permanent war.

One result of this is that women é more than half the population é have no influence at all on the future of the country. The army is the realm of men and machoism. Women in most ranks are reduced to serving coffee. In terms of their ability to influence the country’s future, the situation of Arab citizens, a fifth of the population, is even worse.

The chiefs of the Turkish army, who are good friends of their Israeli colleagues, have a similar position in their country. Turkey is a democracy, there is a president, a parliament, an elected government. But the army considers itself as the supreme guardian of the state and its values. When the army decides that the government is deviating, it tells it to mend its ways. In extreme cases, the army causes the government to resign. In Israel the processes are more covert and complex, but the result is similar.

Mirabeau coined another telling phrase: “War is the national industry of Prussia.” One could say that occupation is the national industry of Israel.

[The author has closely followed the career of Sharon for four decades. Over the years, he has written three extensive biographical essays about him, two (1973, 1981) with his cooperation.]