Death of the Generals

The untimely death last December of General Amnon Lipkin-Shahak (whom I had the privilege of knowing), had put the January elections in a new and surprising perspective. I call it “Death of the Generals” – it does seem, doesn’t it, that most of them die relatively young? – though the passing, or changing of the guards might be just as appropriate. It quite possible also that, as far as the political arena in Israel and its leaders are concerned, this would be the most significant outcome of the last elections.

Here’s why: The first phase of Israel’s political leadership, the Pioneers Phase, had lasted roughly forty years (kind of symbolic, come to think of it), from the War of Independence to the end of the eighties. From Ben-Gurion to Begin, and from Eshkol to Shamir, with Sharett, Golda and Peres in between, these were the political pioneers and political operators who secured, to a large degree, Israel’s independence and survival. Not that there were not generals in those days. Quite the opposite: Yigal Allon and Moshe Dayan, and later on Ezer Wiezman, were not only generals but also mythical figures, at least as I was growing up. It was always assumed that they would become Israel’s next political leaders; just one more government and one of them would be Prime Minister. However, not only did they die young (Allon for sure), but important and significant as the roles they had played in Israel’s wars-of-survival were, they never reached the top echelon of being Prime Ministers (exception: when Eshkol died, Allon briefly served as Acting Prime Minister). The political apparatchiks of those days, and the well-oiled political machinery, were too strong for them to overcome.

Then, in the nineties, came the second phase: the Generals Phase. A generation of leaders: Rabin, Sharon and Barak, who all became Israel’s Prime Ministers. Rabin tried to bring peace and reconciliation with the Palestinians, and paid for it dearly with his life. He might as well have succeeded with the Oslo Accords in bringing some reasonable solution to the now all but deceased two-state solution. Alas, the fanatic, religious right, and those behind who inflamed the rhetoric of hate to a great effect, had gunned him down. Sharon, the great architect and enabler of the settlers movement, came to his senses late and tried to bring about at least a relative and temporarily – albeit a step in the right direction – solution when he pulled Israel’s army and its settlements out of Gaza. Call it what you will, but he too paid for it personally when he went into a coma. Barak is still with us, and though he had tried with the Camp David talks and President Clinton’s help to bring about an acceptable peace resolution, he was out-maneuvered by Arafat and Sharon. And for dancing with the devil all these later years, he paid a heavy price by almost single-handedly destroying the historic Labor party.

And here comes the third phase, following the results of these elections, a phase we might as well call the Professionals Phase. I find it intriguing that my mother, a veteran Labor party cardholder for as long as I can remember, had voted for Yair Lapid and Yesh Atid; my sister had voted for Meretz, and a woman friend of mine had voted for Yachimovich and Labor. They all live in Tel Aviv, by the way. Yet it brings to mind the idea that together with Tzipi Livni, it does seem – from afar and “nechar,” anyway – that all four party heads represent a new generation of leaders: professional, with successful civil careers. So maybe – just maybe – they will now show the way to a better, down-to-earth future. It’s hard to tell yet, since the forces on the right are still strong and fanatic as ever, and the forces left-of-center don’t give any signs of willingness to put personal ambitions aside and unite under one umbrella in order to have a stronger political leverage.

On the other side, the right-of-center side, Netanyahu and Bennett do have behind them an honorable army service (though they were never generals), and also had an established, successful business careers. Shaul Mofaz, the last of the Mohicans/generals, is hardly alive political wise, and even though he may still play a role in the next government, it won’t be a significant, leading one. His party, Sharon’s party, is a thing of the past and clinically dead. And dead are most of the old generals. And though Lipkin died of a natural cause, too many of them had died this way: too young, without – politically speaking – reaching their full potential. His death may signify something larger, therefore: the end of an era, and the beginning of a new one.

About the Author
Hillel Damron was born in Kibbutz Hephzibah to parents who survived the Holocaust; he was an officer of elite paratroop unit who was wounded in battle; studied film and became a director of TV documentaries, video shorts and a feature film. Damron is the author of three novels, short stories and a political blog; winner of Moment Magazine’s 2011 Memoir Contest and is the past executive director of the Hillel House, at University of Davis, California.