PM Benjamin Netanyahu vs. The IDF: What is the End Game?
By splitting the IDF central command to appease extremist interests Israeli PM Netanyahu courts disaster. Israeli pundit Attila Somfalvi on what this means for Israel’s future.
Note From the Editor, Vivian Bercovici:
This piece by regular State of Tel Aviv contributor, Attila Somfalvi, is a cri de coeur. His thoughts resonate with many Israelis today, and to dismiss them all as a bunch of leftists is disingenuous. There is a seismic social, political, and legal revolution in Israel. Now.
You may wish to check out his twitter feed, particularly a thread he posted a short while ago.
If your Hebrew is a little rusty, or non-existent, the twitter translation function does a fine job. You see the situation differently? Feel free to discuss in our comment section. Or send us a note and tell us why. We are always pleased to hear from readers. And if you’d like to present a different point of view for publication, let us know.
I. A TELEPHONE CONVERSATION
A few days before the end of his tenure, the IDF Chief of General Staff, Major General Aviv Kochavi, phoned Prime Minister-elect Benjamin Netanyahu to tell him, plainly, that he is concerned about what the incoming governing coalition intends to do with the army.
During the last two months, Netanyahu conducted coalition negotiations that were more like a grotesque parody. Among the deeply troubling outcomes is what appears to be a commitment to two of his extremist coalition allies to empower them with chunks of decision making authority that, for 75 years, have been centralized under the IDF Chief of Staff. And for good reason.
If dying democracies had a Hell, it would look like the coalition agreements masterminded by Netanyahu and his partners; "deals" that pander to sectoral interests, are dividing the country and then further dividing.
Leaving politics aside, in the long run, those agreements will undermine the very existence of the IDF; the existential pillar of the State of Israel.
II. A TELEPHONE CONVERSATION ABOUT MORE THAN IT SEEMED
Major General Kochavi may have spoken to Netanyahu about his concern about the army – because that was his official responsibility – but his comments were thinly veiled warnings about the well-being of the state of Israel as a whole. Because what Netanyahu is doing is carving this little country into cantons – cultural, social and economic ghettos - which will become even more siloed from one another over time.
The wealthiest, strongest, and most content of these is the liberal canton, Tel Aviv being its lodestar. Surrounding the commercial and cultural hub of the country are numerous communities in which millions – the liberal (in the classical sense) majority of Israelis – reside. Locally, this dense cluster of settlement and vitality is referred to as the “mercaz”, meaning “center” in Hebrew.
This – and to the north, in Haifa - is where the liberal population of Israel is concentrated: secular, educated, economically established. It is a demographic that has benefited significantly from Israel's unprecedented economic prosperity in recent years. This cohort tends to speak several languages, fly abroad often and overall have a high quality of life.
They are also acutely aware of the emergence of totalitarian democracies in recent years; the unfortunate mutation already afflicting several European capitals. This growing trend combines free elections with a forceful and illiberal rule that often delegitimizes the foundational institutions of robust democracies: the judicial system and the free press.
To over simplify further, the second major Israeli canton is a mix of haredim, religious Zionists, right wing extremist nationalists and Likudniks, dispersed all over the country but with notable clusters in Bnei Brak, Jerusalem and a few West Bank settlements. Several million Israelis belong in this canton. They do not flinch when they hear racist statements against Arabs, homosexuals, women or “liberals”. This canton is generally poorer, more traditional, more militant, and less connected to the values of liberalism and democracy. Many of them are educated only in matters of religion, and dismiss “secular” studies, such as math, science or the English language, as being meaningless.
The canton partition I put forward here is rough, of course, but it presents a sharp snapshot of the reality of Jewish Israel.
(Arab-Israeli society is a separate, complex story, which I will address in a future essay.)
As harsh as this distillation may seem, these two contrasting realities are nothing new. Israel has been culturally divided for decades. However, the liberals and the ultra-Orthodox have managed their tensions reasonably peaceably for several decades. Until now.
Similar unspoken compromises explain, as well, how supporters of the two-state solution have been able to live with the increasingly entrenched and expanding settlement system in the West Bank.
Paradox is a part of daily life in Israel.
So. What has changed?
The brutality. Of everything. And the lack of interest in both camps to continue to maintain the tense and sensitive dialogue needed to preserve intra-Jewish coexistence. Pressures contained and managed for decades have blown the lid off the pot.
III. THE REAL EXISTENTIAL THREAT TO ISRAEL: ITSELF
These days, the liberal camp – with which I clearly identify - is confronted constantly with yet another shocking proposal from the ultra-conservative parliamentarians controlling the Knesset. They are savvy to take advantage of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's fear of being convicted in his ongoing trial on corruption-related charges in order to squeeze every possible commitment out of him, in every area imaginable.
The reality that is currently being created also bears a significant risk of threatening the very existence of the State of Israel, and its ability to stand firm against its external enemies. For many years now, the heads of Israel's security services have been warning that the external threat to Israel is less significant than the internal threat it faces. The heads of the Shin Bet and Mossad who have retired in the last decade, as well as senior IDF officers, have warned of the deepening rifts cleaving Israeli society. There is no existential threat to Israel, they stress, despite the dangers emanating out of Tehran. But there is a very real internal existential threat.
How incoming Minister of Defence and former IDF chief of staff, Yoav Gallant, manages the mess Bibi has concocted remains to be seen. As was clear when they met for the ceremonial transition of the role, Gallant and outgoing Minister of Defense, Benny Gantz, agree on a fundamental issue: the importance of having a central command for all IDF operations and planning. To carve up security – as Bibi has done - is a recipe for disaster for Israel. Watching how Gallant manages this mess will be top of mind for all Israelis.
IV. THE CONSEQUENCES OF TUNING OUT
Israelis are hard-wired to tune out an issue that is not immediate. Like war.
If a threat is not military in nature they tend to just carry on.
They don’t have time to engage in philosophical discussions about divisions within the nation. But this tendency to “ostrich” – to bury - is exactly what may hasten the collapse of the Israeli enterprise. Most critically, the heightened social tension we are now seeing could well herald the demise of the storied IDF.
On May 26, 1948, David Ben-Gurion signed an Order establishing the Israel Defense Forces. The goal was to bring together under one roof, one command, all the various (and often competing) forces that had fought against the British.
The founding father and visionary who actualized Israeli statehood, Ben Gurion understood well that a democratic country could not have independent, partisan armies or militias amongst its citizens. And he understood something so fundamental: in a society struggling to survive, a unifying bond, or social glue, was so important to provide an institutional solution to promote and enhance cohesion of immigrants from such varied cultures and countries.
And so, the IDF was conceived primarily as a force to defend the country, physically, but with an equally important role in creating the Israeli “melting pot” that is truly unique in history. And, for the most part, it was a raging success.
The closest thing to a true meritocracy, the IDF was less concerned with “real world” prejudices - separating rich and poor, Ashkenazim and the Sephardim, the right and the left, the good and the better, the women and the men, the secular and the religious – and more focused on getting the job done. Due to its existential role, the IDF had the first pick of talent. Today, as always, thousands of Israelis vie every year to be selected to serve in elite technological intelligence and combat units, the air force and other specialized military forces.
The ethos of military service, which has also eroded in recent years (regardless of the recent election results), succeeded in bringing Israelis under one tent, motivated by the understanding that “we have no other country, and the homeland must be defended.” Underpinning widespread support for the IDF were the companion values of Israeli democracy: freedom, liberty and pride in belonging to a nation that rose from literal ashes to become a modern miracle.
Today, that ethos is broken. Dangerous political games are breaking it to pieces.
The position of the haredim is that the prayer and study of their men, full-time, is what has saved and will continue to safeguard the state, physically. They scoff at the army. Not only has Netanyahu acceded to their demands that they be exempt from the IDF draft but he has also agreed to more than double the stipend paid to haredi men who choose not to work. They will be paid more than double what an IDF soldier receives.
As Jewish Home Leader and MK Avigdor Lieberman stated recently: ”This government spits in the face of every IDF soldier.”
The haredi refusal to serve – is about a fundamental clash in values. Religious-based political interests have total control over the lives of their constituents and clearly prefer to preserve their autonomous fiefdoms. They do so by extracting unconscionable financial concessions from the state. And by negotiating exemptions for their followers from fundamental responsibilities that apply to all citizens.
V. THE END?
Those holding leftist views have served in the territories for years, out of the belief that patriotism in such a threatened country requires a degree of conformity, however discomfiting. And they honored their social contract to do their part. At the end of the day they believed that they were protecting the sovereignty and safety of the citizens of the State of Israel, a free and democratic country. “The only democracy in the Middle East,” as Netanyahu likes to boast in his speeches around the world.
But now, a flood of anti-democratic initiatives is threatening to turn Israel into Hungary, Poland or Turkey.
In the liberal canton, the painful question arises: What exactly are we sending our children to protect? And the significance of this is dramatic – it heralds the weakening of the IDF. Because the essence of the IDF is the motivation, dedication and morality of its soldiers and commanders. It has always been the glue of Israeli society, the great equalizer; where a high-tech CEO may serve his annual reserve duty under the command of a young, immigrant officer from a poor development town. Service and belief in the nation is the IDF code of conduct.
It’s not about money, but vision. An idea. An ethos. A dream. And today, with his own hands, Netanyahu is tearing apart the Israeli ethos. And with that goes the IDF.
A dysfunctional military, for Israel, is fatal.