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HomeMiddle EastDebate Over Role of ‘People’s Army’ in Israel Reflects Wider Fissures

Debate Over Role of ‘People’s Army’ in Israel Reflects Wider Fissures

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, and with them the government, have shifted to the right 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 will now serve as the army’s overlord.

His immediate predecessor, Moshe Yaalon, a conservative and former military chief of staff who was pushed 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 for 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. Stern criticized General Golan for becoming involved in the public discourse while in uniform. Mr. Kremnitzer countered, “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.”

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(via NY Times)