The civil-military relationship in Israel, and the Middle East more generally, has long fascinated academics, and in the wake of the recent conflict, it is important to understand the role of the individual, be he of military or civilian persuasion, in Israeli governance. Oren Barak writes that in Israel “the ties between acting and retired security officials have been conceptualized as a ‘security network’ that influences domestic and external policy” (Barak, International Journal of Middle Eastern Studies). Thus, Israel, although a democracy with separated civil and military structures, presents a unique case for studying the influence of the military, and specifically military figures, in state politics.
The IDF is often considered a ‘citizen’s army,’ meaning that, rather than maintaining a large standing army, Israel requires that most citizens serve a short military term and then later remain semi-active as members of a massive reserve corps. When Israel engages in a military campaign, such as against Hamas in the summer of 2014, these reserve forces are then mobilized. This mobilization process thus entails a concerted statewide engagement in the military campaign. As Roger Owen writes, “in order to maintain such an army, it is also necessary to have a core of long-service professionals to ensure its capability between campaigns, [which] puts them in a position to play a major role in influencing such highly important matters as the size of the military budget and even, on occasions, the resort to war itself” (Owens, 2000). Naturally, these “long-service professionals” are also well positioned to run for civilian offices and attract widespread support from a militarized electorate. Military leaders are therefore hugely influential on Israeli politics and often ascend into civilian leadership positions, largely because, as Owens observes, “the boundaries between civilian and military are rendered indistinct” (Owen 2000) in Israeli bureaucratic structures. The ambiguity of the role of the security sector vis a vis the civilian bureaucratic governing body has engendered attempts to constitutionally define the respective responsibilities of the civil and the military bodies. Both attempts, one in 1974 and the other via constitution have failed. Security sector leaders have thus risen to (lawfully) enter and dominate civilian offices.
From Prime Minister David Ben Gurion, who served as his own minister of defense, to General Moshe Dayan, who demanded that Prime Minister Levi Eshkol hand over the defense portfolio in the lead-up to the Six Day War, to Ariel Sharon who dominated the Israeli cabinet as minister of defense, individual decision-makers have been the centerpiece of the Israeli security sector. It is for this reason that so many Israelis rested their hopes for peace completely on the shoulders of two men: Yitzhak Rabin and Ariel Sharon. Understanding the level to which Israeli politics are driven by the ideology and personality of the individual leaders, rather than party politics or electoral necessity, is essential to a broader understanding of Israel’s security establishment and military decision-making.
In the aftermath of perhaps the bloodiest conflict in modern Israeli-Palestinian relations, Israeli leadership, mostly in the form of Bibi Netanyahu, has appeared hostile, unwieldy, and perhaps even indecisive, in the act of balancing the Israeli right, the American left, and Palestinian demands. As Israelis begin to look for new leadership, it is important to remember the power of personality in shaping the direction of Israel’s future.