When the state of Israel came into being on May 14, 1948, its declaration of independence was followed by the establishment of a provisional government and the absorption of disparate Jewish armed militias into the Israel Defense Forces.
The speed with which the creation of the army followed the establishment of the state was hardly a coincidence. Pressed by invading armies sworn to destroy it, Israel needed to organize its security forces.
But the creation of a single unified army under the command of the civilian government was a complicated affair — separate commands connected to differing commanders and ideological visions had to be combined into one national defense force. So volatile an endeavor was it that the sitting head of the provisional government, David Ben Gurion, had to command Israeli soldiers to sink the Altalena, a ship filled with badly needed munitions procured by the Irgun, one of the Jewish guerrilla forces fighting for Israel’s independence. Menachem Begin, who headed the Irgun, had refused to allow the weapons to be distributed to any soldier who wasn’t a part of that force. Ben Gurion sank the ship to ensure that the IDF would be a unified army, under the control of the government, committed to defending the state and its citizens.
As the army was to serve the nation under the control of the civilian government, policy and direction would be sourced from the cabinet and the defense minister. Because of the vital importance of the position, and the need for skills necessary to defend the people of Israel, almost every defense minister, since the creation of the state, has had a deep relationship with the armed forces before he was appointed. Experience has shown when this was not the case, disaster followed.
Consequently, when Prime Minister Netanyahu forced out Moshe Ya’alon as defense minister last month and replaced him with Avigdor Lieberman, a wave of criticism swept the country. Some of the concerns focused on the replacement of a former chief of staff with a politician who had never risen above the rank of corporal. Other concerns centered on Lieberman’s penchant for extremist pronouncements, which seemed to be a lit fuse in a bunker of explosives.
Netanyahu’s blatant desire to remain in power placed political considerations over military competence. Most of the country sees it as a self-serving move, taken even at the cost of Israel’s security. Prime Minister Netanyahu, who ran for re-election as “Mr. Security,” had cobbled together a coalition that held a one-vote margin in the Knesset, a fractious combination of dubious discipline. Netanyahu could not abide the situation, not because a weak government might put Israel in danger but because this tenuous collection of ministers could fall apart and leave him out of power. He needed to expand the coalition so that no one single minister could topple his government.
A public gesture by President Sisi of Egypt provided an opening for Bibi to entice opposition Labor leader Yitzhak Herzog into a unity government. Talks between Bibi and Herzog stalled, because the conditions Herzog demanded if he were to join the government might have forced other parties out of the coalition, thereby further weakening Bibi’s hold on power. Netanyahu, in a desperate move, shifted from the center to the far right, offering to bring Avigdor Lieberman and his Yisrael Beiteinu party into the government. Lieberman demanded to be defense minister — a price Netanyahu apparently found easier to accept. Indeed, for Netanyahu, it was a win-win; he increased the size of his coalition, further securing his reign as prime minister, while removing Ya’alon, a formidable potential challenger, from his position as minister of defense. Ya’alon, whose credentials include having been a highly respected former major general in the IDF, a former head of military intelligence, and former IDF chief of staff, was now to be replaced by former Corporal Liberman.
Ya’alon, who has a reputation for hardline diplomacy with Palestinians, has been equally tough on the issue of maintaining the rule of law. For example, when members of Lehava, which promotes the ideology of the late Jewish Defense League leader Meir Kahane and his outlawed terrorist organization, were arrested and indicted for committing arson and spray-painting anti-Arab graffiti at the Hebrew-Arab Bilingual School in Jerusalem, Ya’alon, then defense minister, ordered Israeli military intelligence, the Shin Bet, and the defense ministry to assemble evidence required to classify Lehava as a terrorist organization. That put Ya’alon at odds with the settler movement, which long has seen itself as a law unto itself. This was further exacerbated after the recent extrajudicial execution of an immobilized terrorist in Hebron back in March, when Ya’alon came out in public support of the IDF and its arrest of the soldier.
While achieving the Netanyahu government’s short-term advantages, the move to replace Ya’alon with Liberman exposed its weaknesses and shifted its political center of gravity to the far right. This comes at a time when the government was coming under criticism for its right-wing religious-chauvinist ideological drift and style of leadership, threatening Israel’s democracy and its international relationships.
As he left the defense minister post, Ya’alon said: “Extreme and dangerous elements have taken over Israel and the Likud Party and are destabilizing our home and threatening to harm its inhabitants.… I saw before me the safety of Israel and its citizens in all of my acts and decisions, and the good of the country above all other considerations. This was so in security and professional matters and in matters of values and rule of the law.…
“I fought with all my might against the phenomena of extremism, violence, and racism in Israeli society that are threatening our national resilience and are seeping into the Israel Defense Forces, in fact already harming it. I fought with all my might against attempts to harm the Supreme Court and Israel’s justices, trends whose outcomes greatly harm the rule of law and could be disastrous for our country.…
“In general, Israeli society is healthy, with a sane majority that strives for a Jewish, democratic, and liberal state; a state that accepts every person as he is, regardless of religion, race, gender, ethnic background, or sexual inclination…. A tolerant state that tolerates the weak and the minorities; a state obligated to draw them closer, not incite against them. A country that fights against attempts to exclude women or condone sexual harassment against them.”
Ya’alon’s protest is the latest chapter in a long story of the growing gap between policy views of Israel’s security establishment and Netanyahu’s views. Back in 2012, the film “The Gatekeepers” revealed that all six living former heads of the Shin Bet agreed that the continuing occupation of the West Bank was harming Israel. In October 2014, Commanders for Israel’s Security was formed to promote peace and stable relations with Palestinians and normalize relations with moderate Arab states. The movement’s members include 200 former Israeli generals, along with former IDF chief of staff Dan Halutz, former directors of Mossad, a former head of the Shin Bet, former Air Force commanders, and former police commissioners.
This security establishment’s concern is that the trends of religious extremism and nationalist chauvinism that are calling for the annexation of the West Bank into the state of Israel proper are eroding the Jewish democratic future of Israel and undermining the international support that is of vital importance to Israel’s security. On May 31, the 68th anniversary of the founding of the IDF, this group delivered its “Security First” plan for improving Israel’s security situation and international standing to government ministers, deputy ministers, and lawmakers.
Recognizing that military force alone will not solve Israel’s security problems with Palestinians in the West Bank or in Gaza, the plan prescribes a combination of security, civil, and economic measures aimed at keeping the promise of a two-state solution alive and encouraging Israel’s integration into a regional arrangement with the 52 Arab states that have agreed to recognize it once the conflict with the Palestinians is resolved.
The question that remains is whether Corporal Lieberman will listen to the generals’ suggestions. Ya’alon’s ouster and Lieberman’s ascension occur at a time of tension in the country, the result of a wave of lone-wolf Palestinian terrorist attacks. While these events do not threaten Israel’s existential viability, they erode the sense of personal security Israelis feel as they go about their daily lives.
But Lieberman is unlikely to have the skills necessary to promote effective security measures. His well-known connection with Russia’s Putin and his lack of senior military experience and professional relationships with Israeli military commanders makes him particularly ill-suited to run the defense ministry. At the same time, it makes the Netanyahu government even less likely to evolve political conditions that might reduce Israeli-Palestinian tensions and promote the international good-will so important for Israel’s security.