The debate over whether senior Israeli officers have the right to publicly express political opinions has raged around several contentious issues. Among these is the responsibility of the IDF, as the repository of many of the state’s most cherished values, to warn when those ideals are endangered. Others argue that the politicization of the army will compromise its historic role as the chief unifying factor in Israeli society.
Largely missing from this discussion, though, is what’s really at stake: the future of Israeli democracy. Democratic systems are predicated on certain fundamental principles. Along with elected government, an independent judiciary, and freedoms of speech, religion, and assembly is the clear separation between the military and civilian echelons. The intervention of army commanders in domestic politics, in deed or even in word, is the first step toward coups and juntas.
American presidents have vigorously preserved the civilian/military separation. In 1951, at the height of the Korean War, Harry Truman fired General Douglas MCArthur — the most celebrated general of his day — for publicly criticizing the president’s handling of the conflict. President Obama similarly forced the resignation of General Stanley McChrystal, commander of all US forces in Afghanistan, for giving a politically charged interview to Rolling Stone magazine in 2010. Both Truman and Obama understood that a military that comments on civilian policies undermines the very fabric of the Republic.
In Israel, the situation is complicated by the intimate relationship between the IDF and Israeli society, as well as by the presence of former senior officers in political positions. Together with threats from Israel’s enemies, the army must grapple with the challenges posed by Israeli extremists from both the right and the left.
Still, the principle of an IDF that stays above the political fray is crucial to Israel’s survival as a democratic state. David Ben-Gurion fully understood this fact. Shortly after Israel’s founding, he disbanded the ideological militias — the Palmach, the Lehi, and the Etzel — and integrated them into a unified command answerable only to the government.
Those in Israel now advocating for the right of military personnel to comment publicly on politics must ask themselves whether that right will be reserved for generals only or also extend to junior officers and even privates. And why should the right be limited to free speech and not include the right to free assembly and demonstration? Are those supporting a political role for the IDF willing to welcome a demonstration of 200 colonels outside the Knesset?
Much of the debate surrounding politics and the IDF has broken down along lines of the right and left, with the latter generally defending those soldiers who have spoken out against right-wing extremism. But those commentators undoubtedly know that the next generation of senior IDF commanders will likely have a different political orientation, and the criticism could be leveled at the left.
Whether or not senior Israeli commanders are correct in their analysis of the threats facing Israeli society is beside the point. Openly sounding those warnings is not their role and, worse, it undermines Israeli democracy. Our response to those officers must be, to paraphrase a quote widely attributed to Voltaire, “Even though we may agree with your opinions, we must oppose your right to express them.”
Michael Oren, Israel’s former ambassador to the United States and a member of Knesset, is the author of Ally: My Journey Across the American-Israeli Divide(Random House, 2015).