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Israel: an Army That Has a State


The existence of the army in a truly democratic state represents a paradox.

The army is supposed to obey the elected government. This obedience is unconditional.

But the army (including land, sea and air forces) is the only potent armed force in the country. It can carry out a coup d’etat and grab power at any given moment.

In recent months alone, army commanders have carried out coups in Egypt and Thailand, and perhaps in other places, too.

So what prevents army commanders carrying out coups everywhere? Just the democratic values, on which they were raised.

In Israel, a military coup is unthinkable.

Here is the place to repeat the old Israeli joke: the Chief of Staff assembles his senior commanders and addresses them: “Comrades, tomorrow morning at 0600 hours we take over the government.”

For a moment there is silence. Then the entire audience dissolves into hysterical laughter.

A cynic might interrupt here: “Why should the army bother with a coup? It governs Israel anyhow!”

In civics classes, we learn that Israel is a democracy. Officially: “a Jewish and democratic state”. The government decides, the army follows orders.

But, as the man said: “It ain’t necessarily so.”

True, there has never been a case of high level military disobedience in Israel. The nearest we ever got was the case on the eve of the 1967 war, when Prime Minister Levy Eshkol hesitated to give the order to attack, and several impatient generals threatened to resign. Also. a colonel resigned in protest against the plan to attack Beirut in the 1982 Lebanon war.

But even during the 2005 withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, a moment of supreme emotional crisis, when the public was deeply split, there was no act of refusal. The army carried out the orders of the government.

But the role of the army in national politics is far more complex.

Just now, the army is involved in the annual ritual of the budget fight.

The army says it needs much more than the Finance Ministry says it is able to give. It is a question of national security, nay of national survival. Terrible dangers are mentioned. After a bitter dispute, a compromise is reached. Then, a few months later, the army comes up and demands some billions more. A new danger is looming on the horizon. More money, please.

The Finance people argue that a huge chunk of the military budget is spent on pensions. In order to keep the army young and fresh, officers are pensioned off at the ripe old age of 42 – and for the rest of their lives receive very generous pensions. This applies not only to combat officers, who spend much time in the field and neglect their families, but also to paper shifters, wallahs and technical personnel, whose job is essentially civilian. Timid suggestions to pay less from now on are angrily rejected.

When a general goes home, the army considers it its comradely duty to provide him with a suitable civilian job. The country is swimming with ex-generals and ex-colonels who hold central positions in politics, public administration, government-owned corporations and services etc. Tycoons employ them for huge salaries because of their influential connections. Many of them have founded “security”-related companies and are engaged in the world-wide import and export of arms and military equipment.

Almost every day, these ex’s appear on TV and write in newspapers as experts on political and military affairs, thus exercising enormous influence on public opinion.

Few of them are “leftists” and propagate pro-peace views. The vast majority propound opinions which range from “center-right” to the fascist right.


The same cynic may put forward a very simple explanation. War is the army’s element.

The essence of the military profession is making war and preparing for war. Its entire existence is based on war-making.

It is natural for every professional person to long for an opportunity to show his or her professional proficiency. Peace rarely provides such an opportunity for military officers. War is a huge opportunity. War brings attention, promotion, life-long advancement. In war, a military officer can show his mettle and excel in ways unsuspected in peace.

(Senior officers like to declare that they hate war more than anyone else “because they have seen its ravages”. That is pure nonsense.)

Occupation is also, of course, a kind of war. It is, to quote Clausewitz, a continuation of politics by other means.

I am not a cynic, and do not tend towards the cynical view, which is necessarily simple and superficial.

I am ready to accept that the great majority of present and past career military people are, at least in their own view, true idealists. When their comrades finish their compulsory army duty and embark on well-paying civilian careers, the officers remain in the army out of a sense of duty and patriotism. If they believed in peace, they would have sacrificed everything for peace.

Trouble is, they don’t.

The army creates an outlook, a worldview that is inherent in its very nature. It tells the soldier from the very first day that there is an “enemy”, against whom he must be ready to fight and, if necessary, sacrifice his life. The world is full of potential enemies, evil and cruel, who endanger the fatherland. One does not need to be a Jew and remember the Holocaust to know this (though it certainly helps).

Could Hitler, once in power, have been overthrown except by war?  Was there another way to save the world?

Clearly not. Despised as he may be in peaceful times, in times of need it is the general to whom everybody looks and who is expected to save the nation.

This conviction, repeated every day for years and years, shapes the military mind. It will continue to do so until mankind succeeds at long last in setting up a world-wide governance structure to make war a thing of the past.

All of these trends are even more extreme in Israel.

The state of Israel was born in the middle of a long and brutal war. From day 1, its existence depended on the moral and material strength of its army. The army is the center of national life, the darling of its Jewish citizens. It is by far the most popular institution in today’s Israel.

This reminds one of the German Reich of the Kaiser, where it was said that “Der Soldate / ist der beste Mann im Staate” (“the soldier is the best man in the state”). Perhaps it was not an accident that the founder of Zionism, Theodor Herzl, was an ardent admirer of the Kaiser’s Reich.

In my ongoing internet dialogue with my lady friend in Lahore, I was again struck by the similarity of our two countries. Pakistan and Israel were born at the same time, in former British colonies, after a painful partition with much bloodshed, in which masses of people became refugees. Both are based on a religious-ethnic ideology and live in constant conflict with their neighbors.

Both are democracies – ruled, behind the scenes, by their armies and intelligence establishments.

Every young Jewish Israeli is supposed to serve in the army. Men serve for three years – the most formative years in the life of the human male, the years of idealism, still unburdened by families, ready to sacrifice.

(In practice, almost 40% do not serve at all – both Arab citizens and Orthodox Jewish citizens are exempted, though for different reasons.)

The army is the melting pot for native-born youngsters, immigrants from Russia, Morocco, Ethiopia and many other countries. During 1100 days and nights, the army forges their common denominator and their common outlook.

They come to the army already prepared. The Israeli education system is a factory for Zionist indoctrination, from kindergarten on. These 15 years, crowned by the three army years, produce a vast majority of narrow-minded, nationalist, ethnic-centered men and women. From there the professional military officer starts his career, however far it may go, taking his ideological baggage with him.

Leaving the army at 42 and starting on a civilian career does not mean shedding these blinkers. On the contrary, army officers remain army officers even when donning civilian garb. One could say that the officers, present and past, constitute the only real party in the country.

This is not the same army I swore allegiance to on the day it was founded. At the time, many officers were Kibbutz members, brought up in the spirit of socialism and solidarity. After 57 years of occupation, the army has become brutalized, many officers are settlers, many wear nationalist-religious knitted kippahs. The extreme right-wing religious parties make a deliberate effort to infiltrate the officers corps and succeed on a large scale.

More than 200 years ago, Count Mirabeau, a leader of the French revolution, famously said that Prussia is “not a state that has an army, but an army that has a state”.

The same can be said today about the Only Democracy in the Middle East.

URI AVNERY is an Israeli writer and peace activist with Gush Shalom. He is a contributor to CounterPunch’s book The Politics of Anti-Semitism.


URI AVNERY is an Israeli writer and peace activist with Gush Shalom. He is a contributor to CounterPunch’s book The Politics of Anti-Semitism.

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