Debate Over Role of ‘People’s Army’ in Israel


JERUSALEM — In a politically fractious country troubled by monumental security challenges, Israel’s military has long served as an equalizer and unifier, a “people’s army” that, at least in the eyes of the Jewish majority, reflected the general interest.

But the Israeli people have shifted to the right and with them the government, amid an upsurge of Palestinian stabbings and other attacks. Now the military finds itself at the center of a tumultuous debate about its role as the nation’s conscience and most trusted institution.

Some government ministers and an increasingly shrill segment of the public have been pushing for tougher action in the face of months of Palestinian attacks that have killed about 30 civilians and soldiers. Other Israelis want the military to remain a moderating force and a bulwark against extremism.

The debate about the military’s role has been highlighted by a series of clashes among its high command, the government and an aggressive segment of the public in recent months. The pressure on the military is also growing in light of the appointment of Avigdor Lieberman, a hard-liner, as defense minister. Mr. Lieberman has been among the harshest critics of Israeli security policies and now will serve as the army’s overlord.

His immediate predecessor, Moshe Yaalon, a conservative and former military chief of staff who waspushed out, had staunchly backed the generals, who have spoken out against manifestations of extremism in the ranks and in broader society.

“Generally, the image of an army is that it wants to push forward and it has to be restrained sometimes by the politicians, statesmen who think in a wider context and know that they need to make compromises,” said Shlomo Avineri, a professor of political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. “In Israel, the present situation is almost the opposite.”

The military chiefs, Mr. Avineri said, are “not wishy-washy liberals.” The fissure is not between the traditional Israeli right and left, he said, but between “strategic hawks,” or pragmatists who put Israel’s security first, and “ideological hawks” who are more concerned with historical rights and Jewish nationalism.

In recent years, Mr. Avineri said, senior military officials, together with the Mossad and Shin Bet security chiefs, were widely credited with having opposed and ultimately blocked Israeli government plans to prepare for an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities, believing that it would have disastrous consequences.

The debate over the military’s role could have a profound impact in Israel, where most Jewish 18-year-olds are drafted for compulsory service, and many perform reserve duty for decades after.

During Independence Day celebrations this month, millions looked skyward to catch a glimpse of the traditional cross-country flyover of fighter jets, Hercules transport planes, air-to-air refueling craft and attack helicopters. The commanders of the air, ground and naval forces often become household names here.

But the recent surge in violence has strained those views of the military.

“The wave of terrorist attacks or intifada or whatever you want to label the events of the past eight months have raised the level of fear in Israeli society,” said Yohanan Plesner, the president of the Israel Democracy Institute, a nonpartisan research group.

“That puts a lot of tension on the military leadership and the soldiers who are put in situations where they are supposed to fight terror, protect themselves and comply with the I.D.F.’s values,” he said, referring to the Israel Defense Forces.

Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot, the chief of staff of the Israeli military, recently caused a stir when he told an audience of high school students that he would not want a soldier to empty a magazine on a Palestinian girl of 13 holding a pair of scissors. He was attacked by rightist politicians who advocate a policy based on the Talmudic lesson “Whoever comes to slay you, slay him first.”

The military chiefs have urged restraint and a strict adherence to open-fire regulations, saying a soldier should shoot to neutralize a threat, but not beyond that. At the same time, Palestinians and human rights groups accuse the military of excessive use of force in the West Bank, where it enforces Israel’s 49-year occupation.

The military brass also came under fire for its swift condemnation of the actions of an Israeli sergeant, Elor Azaria, who fatally shot a disarmed and wounded Palestinian assailant in the head as he lay on the ground after he had stabbed and wounded another soldier. Many Israelis, including Mr. Lieberman, said the denunciation prejudged the case and undermined the troops as they battled Palestinian violence. Outraged Israelis flooded social networks and hailed Sergeant Azaria, who has been charged with manslaughter, as a hero.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu backed the military prosecutors but, sensing the public mood, also called the soldier’s father in a show of support.

Then Maj. Gen. Yair Golan, the deputy chief of the military, caused an uproar in a speech marking Israel’s Holocaust Remembrance Day this month when he said he discerned disturbing trends in Israeli society that reminded him of processes that led to the rise of Nazi Germany.

Mr. Netanyahu rebuked General Golan, criticizing his remarks as outrageous, and said, “The I.D.F. is the people’s army and must remain out of political debates.”

The military’s code of ethics, known as the “Spirit of the I.D.F.,” states clearly that the army’s mission is to protect Israel and its independence while being “subordinate to the directions of the democratic civilian authorities and the laws of the state.”

Still, commanders are encouraged to voice their opinions freely in what the politicians call appropriate forums.

Yaakov Amidror, a major general in the reserves and a former national security adviser, said that “there is no war” between the military and the prime minister. Instead, he said, General Golan crossed a forbidden line between the professionals and the decision makers.

“Because we force everybody to serve,” Mr. Amidror said, “we have to be even more conservative in what officers can say.”

Underlying the complexity of the issue, Mordechai Kremnitzer and Yedidia Z. Stern, both vice presidents of the Israel Democracy Institute, penned opposing views about General Golan’s speech in the Hebrew edition of the Haaretz newspaper.

In an article written with Prof. Avi Sagi, one of the authors of the “Spirit of the I.D.F.,” Mr. Sterncriticized General Golan for becoming involved in the public discourse while in uniform. Mr. Kremnitzercountered, “Army values do not spring up from within the military but are derived from the core values of Israeli society.” He argued that it was General Golan’s right, and even his duty, to warn of any damage to those values.

Military-civilian lines are further blurred in Israel by the number of retired generals who try to capitalize on their army prestige by entering politics.

But the army remains the one island of social solidarity where the country’s political and economic divides vanish.

Micah Goodman, an Israeli-American Jewish philosopher, had just returned from a week of reserve duty with his infantry unit in northern Israel where, he said, he slept in the field with high-tech investors and truck drivers, all wearing the same uniform.

“According to the ethos,” said Mr. Goodman, 42, “the people are meant to educate the army, meaning that the values of the army are a projection of the values of the people.”

But as in many other places in the world, he said, there is a sense that those social values are eroding.

“The more that Israelis feel that Israel is losing its core values and that the army is the last bastion of those old-school Israeli values,” he said, “so the temptation of reversing the model grows.”

May 30, 2016 | 10 Comments »

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  1. JoeBillScott Said:

    exactly what I have been saying for a long time…. the goal is to separate the Jewish and Israeli mind from the land of Israel so as to make it easier for the majority to give it up. BB has been pushing this all along:
    no talk anymore of building outside the existing ghetto boundaries for years… everything based on struggling just to build inside jerusalem and the euro designated ghetto.
    the anti nationalist anti zionist pogrom is to get most israelis to hate settlers and thus hate everything they stand for.
    BB has never stated any interest in the land outside the ghetto boundaries… only talk of security… BB is removing thoughts of the Jewish homeland from the national psyche.
    It is a form of brainwashing a nation.
    this is the reason he stops jews from building and helps euros build muslim homes.
    this is the reason for the war on the settlers and zionists by he and yaalon
    this is the reason for the war on the nationalist soldier.
    this is the reason why BB has NEVER in all his 8 years uttered this words:
    he does not want jews to claim that right, it must not be mentioned, not discussed, not thought about, outside the public discussion….
    the land of Israel forgotten by jews and replaced only by narratives of security…. only a demand for worthless recognitions that Israel is a Jewish state…. a useless and worthless demand for NOTHING but words as payment for the land of Israel.
    those are the facts…. before BB folks used to demand the building of new settlements outside the ghetto blocks… but now the jews are lucky to beg for 2 rooms in Jerusalem.
    the swindle of the land of Israel from the Jews and by the Jews
    but the question is how can the jews claim tel aviv and not judea samaria… if the jews have no right to judea samaria then they have no right to tel aviv. After getting YS they will work on the same fool jews for the rest of it… diplomatically and politically they will win the rest the same way.. through words and nothingness. Giving away YS will be the beginning of the end of Israel.

    Perhaps Liberman is on the bandwagon because he has just stated without any reason that “unity is more important than land” as if he is also preparing the Israeli psyche not to want the land but to want words…. words like unity, security, recognition… but forget the land. Meanwhile the pals know enough to always demand all the land.. their psysche remains prepared for their children to continue to hate Jews, their psyche and maps are prepared to continue to demand all of Israel…. they prepare their children to get while the jews prepare their children to give away. What sort of future is that compared to the time when Jews fought and got? In both culture’s goals success means the muslims get

  2. @ bernard ross:

    “…watchmen are all blind, without knowledge; they are all dumb dogs, they cannot bark; raving, lying down, loving to slumber.
    Yes, the dogs are greedy, they know not when they have enough; and these are shepherds that cannot understand; they all turn to their own way, each one to his gain, one and all”——

  3. @ bernard ross:

    Lieberman has long advocated a shift or pivot by Israel to Russia to negate total dependence on America and to play Russia against America for better leverage and independence of Israel…. BB had made some weak overtures to Putin but always chickened out. Maybe now Lieberman will be more successful?

    What value today negotiations with the Palis especially since Israel will have to pay a heavy price to Mazin for them to enter into any negotiations? Any agreement if it were reached would be negative to our interests and not worth the paper written on them. That said it is my belief that BB has always wanted to make the deal but could never take a stance to make it happen because it would endanger his political position of power. You have to view BB’s zig- zaging in light of his domestic political reality and how he views his own political threats bearing in mind that he is a pathological paranoid…. Any threat to BB in the Likud by anyone with high ratings and popularity has been forced to leave politics and or quit the Likud and there is a long list.

  4. JoeBillScott Said:

    bernard ross, what do you make of Bibi’s and Lieberman’s latest 2-state antics?

    don’t really know, but here are a couple of scenarios:
    he is expecting disagreement on a future vote which could be budget or action wrt the pals.
    On action wrt pals I see 2 scenarios:
    One, a stall to diffuse a UNSC vote… in this case though it would appear that all parties agree to the stall and merely want it to look like something is going on to satisfy constituencies in Israel,PA, EU, UN and USA.
    Two, actual steps will be taken to start real negotiations with something coming from the GCC… however, in this case also I think all parties have under the table understandings and need to satisfy their respective streets. Any final status will take years but perhaps for certain commitments the GCC will recognize Israel or have an interim recognition. They likely want Israel more active on their side against Iran. Israel would likely get their recognition, or non objection, of annexing assads golan.

    BB and Liberman both have prior embraced a two state solution.. its just a matter of the details.. type of state, land, security. Next steps would show which path is the real one.

  5. ‘“Army values do not spring up from within the military but are derived from the core values of Israeli society.” He argued that it was General Golan’s right, and even his duty, to warn of any damage to those values.’
    As mentioned above, baloney. It is his right as a citizen but NOT as chief of staff. His task is to execute the wishes of the Israeli government. It is NOT his right to discuss those orders from a moral or political point of view.
    If he can’t stay within his rights, he has to go.

  6. He argued that it was General Golan’s right, and even his duty, to warn of any damage to those values.

    baloney, Golan was a stooge of Yaalon echoing Yaalons fake alibi for abusing his power and bullying his subordinates to corrupt their positions of investigators, prosecutors and judges… all subordinate to him.

    Enough of this fairy tale that Yaalon and golan were supporting morals and values. They were both corrupting those values in an attempt to support Yaalons prior corruptions. they are following the traditons of Sharon, Barak, in using the IDF as a stepping stone for political advancement. it is absurd to keep spreading the propaganda, to support Yaalons mythical mantra that he commited his crimes for “moral reasons”. that Golan spoke in what should have been a shoah speech

    Meanwhile Jewish dissenters, nationalists and real zionists have been smeared, libeled and severely character assassinated in order to perpetuate the fairy tale of the “grave danger of Jewish extremism” invented by those who wanted the legal fig leaf to jail and torture those dissenting from their tyranny.
    Enough already of these lies.

  7. Jewish extremist to be freed Wednesday with conditions

    Meir Ettinger will be slapped with nighttime house arrest, ban on entering Jerusalem, West Bank and Yad Binyamin

    who can repair the damage that the psychopath inflicted on this innocent man…. who was only incarcerated and tortured to prop up the lies of the Jewish extremism created by a false flag arab arson. The man that put ettinger in jail should himself be place in administrative detention for his cynical betrayal of Jews and democracy. All this just to perpetuate the myth of the dangerous jewish extremists spun by psychopaths while daily murders of Jews were taking place.