02 September 2019

Israel – the generals’ revolt against Captain Benjamin Netanyahu

Laurenţiu Sfinteş

The Israeli political scene is dominated by the personality of current prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and the internal political life is also dominated by his decisions. The recent political and diplomatic successes in the US recognizing the annexation of the Golan Heights, strengthening Israeli sovereign over the West Bank, the moving of some embassies, especially that of the US, from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, however, come at a price, according to his critics, with the most vehement being the former military commanders. And the price, they claim, is the actual future of the Hebrew state and its specific democracy. The mobilization of former members of the military against the prime minister, who was also a former officer in an elite unit 40 years ago, is unprecedented and is made also on his political and electoral home yard.

Image source: Mediafax

Enter: the most decorated Israeli general

In first day of the Festival of Lights in Jerusalem, on June 26, former Israeli PM Ehud Barak announced his candidacy for the parliamentary elections in September, at the helm of his new political group which is still in search of a name, probably the Israeli Democratic Party. “The future of the Zionist Movement is in question” said the former prime minister, who ordered the withdrawal from South Lebanon, but is also the most decorated member of the military in the history of Israel, a former special forces commander in even more special operations (the raid in Entebbe, Uganda, is just an example), director of military intelligence and army chief during the implementation of the Oslo Accords.

The former Israeli military commander and politician joins a long list of former military leaders who, be it by becoming directly involved in politics, or by transferring expertise into warning documents, bring the current course of Israeli politics and relations with the Palestinians into discussion. They are all very critical towards current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is also a former member of the military, who reached the rank of captain in active service within the Sayeret Matkal elite unit, the Israeli equivalent of the British SAS and American Delta Force, in the worst years of the Israeli state, between 1967 and 1973.

The conflict between PM Benjamin Netanyahu and the former members of the military is not new and takes place in a field, of national security, where the latter excel through their expertise and the responsibilities of their previous offices, but where Netanyahu also remains known as “Mister Security”. And Netanyahu the politician, despite these critics, of the unprecedented mobilization of those who were in the past responsible for Israel’s national security, continues to achieve electoral victories and dominate the internal political scene.

What seems to have been crucial for the return to politics of the former leader of the Israeli Labor Party, Ehud Barak, a former lieutenant-general of the Israeli defence forces, is not actually the failure of the current PM to make a parliamentary majority around Likud, following the unexpectedly high margin of the victory in the April 2019 elections. It wasn’t either the apparent chaos in which the Israeli left finds itself, as it is at one of its weakest points in the states’ 70-year history. It is neither about Barak’s ambition to demonstrate that he can do with his new party what other generals turned politicians, gathered around Benny Gantz and the Blue and White coalition.

Decisive seems to have been the decision of former PM Benjamin Netanyahu to follow a security agenda in the relations with the Palestinians which excludes the option of creating a state for them in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Why are the former Israeli generals in favour of creating a Palestinian state

During the April 2019 electoral campaign, the subject was tangentially approached by the other competitors because this theme can hardly be counteracted in a public debate in which nationalistic emotions are easily inflamed. When the US recognized Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights, only two weeks before the elections , Benny Gantz avoided a public statement, but his coalition partner Yair Lapid said that President Trump’s decision is a „dream come true”.

But what cannot be debated on the hot scene of an electoral campaign could, however, have its own public debate within prestigious think-tanks, such as the one created in 2014, Commanders for Israel’s Security, which gather together a number of approximately 300 former Israeli commanders, which previously had at least the rank of brigade general in the Israeli army, Shin Bet – the internal security service, or Mossad – the foreign security service.

Veterans of the wars from recent years, and facing on a daily basis the reality of heroic fighting, but also death and suffering in both camps, these men cannot be accused of weakness in their approach to political, military and security realities of Israel. The option for a Palestinian state is not due a sympathy for their cause, which would be a distancing from the base principles of the Zionist movement. It is, more rather, what the political platform of the new political movement initiated by Ehud Barak clearly states: „The illusion of the status quo and the current blockage are detrimental to Israeli Security and the prosperity and identity of the Hebrew democracy”.

Creating a Palestinian state is an option assumed by the centre-left area of Israeli politics and is based on an obvious logical reality: it is impossible for a middle-ground solution to work long-term. Leftist politicians, as most of the former military commanders, see separating from the Palestinians as the only possibility to maintain the Jewish and democratic character of the state. Otherwise, in the current political and security arrangements, the perspective is that of losing the demographical competition and democratic legitimacy in the space from the Mediterranean to the Jordan Valley.

One of the former military commanders who joined the Israeli right, Ariel Sharon, acted on this logic when, as prime minister, he decided to disengage Israel from the Gaza Strip. But Sharon, a co-founder of Likud, also recognized as “the most prominent military commander in the history of Israel”, according to Yitzhak Rabin, later shifted his political alignment to the centre and formed his own party, Kadima. According to statements from the era, he prepared to also disengage from the West Bank. A stroke in 2006 and a resulting vegetative state for the next eight years ended this potential plan.

What general and Prime Minister Sharon tried and achieved in 2005, the withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, is tried today in a different form, eventually through a peace treaty, by tens and hundreds of former military commanders. It is not a coincidence, though, that Sharon’s decisions were contested at that moment by his Likud rival, Benjamin Netanyahu, who would request a vote for the Likud leadership only two weeks after the withdrawal of the last Israeli colonists from Gaza.

However, at that moment, the withdrawal from the Gaza Strip was favourably received, according to opinion polls, by almost 80% of the Israeli population. Currently, more than 40% of Israelis agree, on the other hand, with an eventual annexation of the West Bank.

The return of generals in Israeli politics. Too late?

But, in the meantime, the Israeli society evolved itself towards the right and the perception of invincibility, due to the military and technological advantage maintained by Israel against its neighbours and rivals in the region, but also from the series of political and diplomatic successes achieved by Benjamin Netanyahu. The direct consequence is the adoption of a hardliner stance in the relations with the Palestinians and the rejection of their eventual statehood.

Because of this, the former generals who coalesced around Benny Gantz did not tackle the issue of security in the electoral campaign as an argument in the fight against PM Netanyahu, preferring to only comment on his corruption scandals. And, probably, they also lost because of this. Only two days before the April 9, 2019 elections, six former military commanders took the scene at the last electoral meeting of the Blue and White coalition, of which four were former commanders of the Israeli Army. Former Israeli military commander for the West Bank, Gen. Avi Miyrahi, would also say from that: “We either do something, or we resign and remain calm”, and Gen. Amos Yadlin, a former military intelligence chief, warned that national security is closely tied to internal national unity. It was not enough, however, in order to win the elections.

The April 7 scene was only a repeat of what happened four years before, in 2015, when in another electoral campaign gen. Meir Dagon, also a well-known general and former Mossad chief, said that there is a crisis in the state’s political leadership, as Netanyahu only acted towards his own political survival and steered Israel towards becoming a bi-national state. It was not enough back then either, and Netanyahu continued to lead the country in the next four years.

Will the scenario repeat in the September elections?

The Israeli security establishment’s criticism towards the prime minister, even made on the political scene, in the electoral fight, did not help until now. It was not enough that all the former Israeli army commanders from the past more than two decades, with a single exception, criticized the PM’s policies and politically though against him. So did the majority of former Shin Bet and Mossad chiefs. Almost five years ago, in a public letter, and impressive number of former military commanders requested the PM to begin negotiations with the Palestinian and moderate Arab countries in order to identify a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The response has yet to come. On the other hand, the sarcastic replies of Netanyahu appeared, accentuated by the April electoral campaign: “Those who decide on security issues are not chiefs of staff, but politicians (…) Their understanding of the political life is, I can say, below zero.”

The Israeli political fight is no-holds barred. There are no prisoners, there is no forgiveness. And Netanyahu is in Jerusalem’s current policy what, at one point, were the former generals in past military operations. Trusting his own decisions, always alert, always ready with surprise plans.

But, unlike past years, the conflict between Netanyahu and the generals is evolving towards irreconcilable stances: as the PM stimulates his electorate increasingly more and takes measures to strengthen Israeli presence on the West Bank, his critics also become more vehement. The former generals claim that while these internal divides are becoming deeper, what should separate Israel from Palestine is also drifting more and more away. And the one they see responsible for this evolution is former special forces captain Benjamin Netanyahu.

The pre-electoral scene is ready. Gen. Barak and Capt. Netanyahu are rehearsing their roles

Following the failure to establish a ruling coalition in the aftermath of the April vote, Israeli parliamentary elections will be repeated on September 17, 2019. It is for the first time in the country’s history when this happens. This is not a positive element for interim PM Benjamin Netanyahu. Neither is his corruption case, in which a verdict has just been postponed. Or the numbers in the opinion polls, which are not exactly favourable to his Likud party.

On the other hand, Ehud Barak’s entrance in the electoral fight could have negative consequences on the opposition. His party can only take votes from this minority area of the Israeli political scene. Even if the former general and PM states otherwise. What Barak offers in comparison with other opposition candidates, also former members of the military, is his former experience as PM, already proven political abilities at the top of Israeli politics, an inside knowledge of the system and a decades-long professional relation with his former comrade from the Israeli special forces, which means he knows him thoroughly.

Will these be enough for Gen. Barak, eventually Gen. Gantz, to sign the dismissal order of Capt. Benjamin Netanyahu?

Translated by Ionut Preda