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What does the future hold for Israel’s military politicians?

Could the Jewish state ever be lead by a class of non-military politicians? Until there is a peace agreement with the Palestinians, it seems unlikely. And even then, who knows?

By Thomas G. Mitchell

Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Minister Ariel Sharon (photo: Saar Yaacov, Government Press Office / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Minister Ariel Sharon (photo: Saar Yaacov, Government Press Office / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Historically there have been two types of Israeli leaders who have been willing to give up territory to the Arabs in exchange for peace. The first type consists of conservative civilian politicians who distrust and fear the Arabs, but who, because of foreign pressure or opportunity, are willing to make peace under the right circumstances. Examples of these are Golda Meir in 1974, Menahem Begin in 1977-79 with Sadat, and Benjamin Netanyahu during his first term in 1997-98. These leaders are able to make peace because they have had cabinets full of former generals who give them credibility with the public. Meir had Moshe Dayan at defense and Yigal Allon as her labor minister. Begin had four former generals: Ezer Weizman as defense minister, Dayan as foreign minister, Ariel Sharon as agriculture minister and Yigal Yadin as deputy prime minister. Netanyahu appointed Sharon foreign minister before the two of them went off to face Yasser Arafat at the Wye Plantation in October 1998. David Ben-Gurion probably would have been in this group if the Arabs had been ready to make peace when he was prime minister.

The second type consists of prime ministers who are themselves former generals: Yitzhak Rabin and Ehud Barak. So it would seem that the fate of Israel’s class of military politicians is pretty important to peace between Israel and its Arab neighbors. In fact, every peace agreement between Israel and the Arabs starting with the armistice agreements in 1949 has been negotiated either by serving generals (or colonels) or by former generals. The one major exception to this rule is the Oslo II agreement negotiated by Shimon Peres.

I don’t have a crystal ball with which to predict the future of this class, but I do have the next best thing. Two Western countries, the United States in the late 18th and the 19th centuries, and South Africa in the late 19th and 20th centuries, had similar classes of military politicians. America’s class began immediately after the American Revolution in the 1780s and lasted until 1893, when Benjamin Harrison stepped down as president. It was most important in the second wave from 1824 to 1857, when its members consisted of former Indian fighters from the War of 1812 and generals from the Mexican War. This was the period when the Whig Party had three generals who could capture the White House. When the last general, Winfield Scott, failed in his bid for the White House in 1852, the Whig Party began to collapse. By 1856, when it endorsed another party’s candidate for the presidency, the Whigs were already a rump party. The third wave consisted of former political generals from the Civil War—professional politicians who were given commissions during the war—who served mainly as symbols of the role of the Republican Party in defeating the Southern attempt at secession.

In South Africa there was a class of African-fighter politicians in one of the two main Boer republics, the South African Republic or Transvaal Republic. Its leading figure was Paul Kruger, who served as president of the republic from 1881 to 1902. The second wave consisted of a number of former Boer generals from the Second Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902), who alternated as prime ministers from 1910 to 1948. South Africa then went through three decades without military politicians until President P.W. Botha made his chief of staff, General Magnus Malan, his defense minister to serve as the military’s representative in the cabinet. Malan remained defense minister for a decade before a scandal forced him to give up the defense ministry for another post. He retired from politics less than a year later. He was the last military politician before the end of the apartheid regime.

What these two cases have in common is that military politicians remained in politics as long as there were serious military threats of rebellion, or threats from either the native population or neighboring countries. In America, Indian-fighter politicians were replaced by Mexican War generals once the Indians ceased to constitute a serious threat to most of the population of the country.

From all of America’s foreign wars of the 20th century, only one former general was elected president: Dwight Eisenhower in 1952. Alexander Haig and Wesley Clark utterly failed in their bids to win their parties’ nomination. And in South Africa, no military politicians emerged from the country’s participation in the two world wars.

Of all the conditions that led to the demise of Indian-fighter politicians in America, only one has been reproduced in Israel: when the Palestinians temporarily lost their main foreign military supplier with the demise of the Soviet Union. Iran, however, has quickly moved in to fill the vacuum. Therefore, it can be safely predicted, based on the American and South African experiences, that until there is a peace treaty with Palestine, and probably for 15 or 20 years after, Israel will continue to produce military politicians.

Not content to rely on only two cases, I also examined all the other former British settler colonies to see if I could find other cases of military-politician classes. The search came up negative. I then looked at former European colonial powers that were also democracies. Both France and Weimar Germany had three former generals in politics, but this is too small a number to draw conclusions from. Franco’s Spain had more—but it was not a democracy and the generals came to power through a civil war.

From the experiences of the U.S., South Africa, and Israel, I have concluded that three conditions were necessary to produce a class of military politicians. First, there had to be a serious and prolonged threat to the country’s population either from the native population or from its neighbors. Second, the country had to be responsible for its own defense. And finally, the country had to be both independent and a democracy (at least for the white settlers). In all, of the other British settler colonies, one or more of these conditions was not present. At most, it was the British army that was responsible for security, and independence came long after the native population had been defeated and subdued.

In the second part, I will examine in detail the attitudes of Israel’s most successful military politicians towards peace with the Palestinians.

Thomas G. Mitchell is the author of Mr. Security: Israeli Military Politicians from Dayan to Barak, due out from McFarland Publishing in late 2014.

Read more:
Ladies and gentlemen, the prime minister of Israel: Mr. Iran Holocaust
Ariel Sharon and my political education

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    1. Philos

      A prime example if why journalists shouldn’t do history or social science.

      Even in the 18th and early 19th Centuries the Native Americans didn’t constitute a military threat to the colonies or the newly independent USA. To even suggest some kind of symmetry between their forces is to downplay the systematic genocide of the Natives by the settlers, the British colonial authorities and later the American authorities. It’s also to overstate and overplay the “military qualities” of the generals who commanded, at best, militias against the Natives. There was also no symmetry between Mexico and the USA; the latter waging a war of aggression and conquest (much like against the Natives) against the Mexicans. If there was a “threat” then it was manufactured as many historians have argued.

      The Boer example hardly seems appropriate given that they didn’t have an army. If there had been a similar pattern like in Israel for the period of South African independence until the fall of apartheid you might be on to something but Israel and that Boer republics of the late 19th Century are hardly comparable.

      Indeed, it’s surprising that you dismiss France, which might be the most fruitful place for comparison. Generals played important roles in politics there from the Franco-Prussian War all the way to De Gaulle. Three whole republics of democracy and you say the sample is too small? Unbelievable.

      Finally, you leave out the UK and it’s strange relationship with generals. True, there were very few PM’s and senior ministers that used to be generals but the House of Commons and the House of Lords was packed with them until WW2.

      In summary, your sample appears to be considerably biased and flawed, which seriously undermines your main hypothesis: namely that democracies select military men for leadership during periods of threat. You need to establish that threat existed in your examples of the USA and the Boer republics, and if it didn’t you’d need to adequately account for that.

      Reply to Comment
      • Philos

        I should add that you dismiss France as an example because it had three generals serve as leaders as too small a sample, yet as you acknowledge Israel only had two generals as leaders.

        I’m surprised +972mag published this. It’s really shoddy.

        Reply to Comment
      • Well, threats can be real or manufactured. Some argue that Polk came close to manufacturing the Mexican American War. There was a Mexican force on the border; whether war was advised is quite another matter. And the only reason I can see for going all the way to Mexico City was to insure a lucrative land treaty.

        Nationalism has a way of rewriting what threat is. While Native Americans were no threat to the State, white (settler!) land encroachment lead to unending clashes which were seen as threats to Americans, and there were atrocities on all sides, including year+ actions by natives, sometimes initially quite successful. Nationalism extends this jeopardy in empathy through rhetoric, and national generals (not militia, although they might have had command of some) transcend the boundaries of the (United) States, providing a natural platform for Presidential politics. But after Grant I think the case weakens considerably. Yes, Harrison II did command in the Civil War, but not in a major way. By the time of his election, his ending service as a brigadier general was just an item on his résumé.

        What is clear is that the military is a natural mechanism of national integration when active, and Israel has had an on and off active military its entire existence. I have been told that military service is a badge of commonality in Israel, and many Israeli Jews meet their spouse in the service. First dispersal from home is controlled by the State through the draft. And certainly many in the electorate are going to weight military standing and knowledge highly, as well as harbor empathy and trust for commanders. It is not clear to me, however, that military campaign experience prepares one for occupation control.

        Lastly, Ginger, below, seems right that peace with the Palestinians will not place Israel in paradise. Even then, the Israeli military will be important in both a strategic and civil sense for some time. In the US, overall, the military is no longer civilly important, save in so far that patriotism and nationalism evoke empathy and redress for those who serve within it; the US military is no social glue for the populace.

        Reply to Comment
        • bob wisby

          Greg, your comments often remind me the work of Derrida, or someone from the Frankfurt School. There is a hard core of raw, fleshy intelligence, overlaid with a hint of whimsey. One gets the sense, reading your thoughts, that for you communication is ‘the thing’, as opposed to take-away content. Am I right?

          Reply to Comment
          • Well, you are sort of right, although being compared to Derrida is a bit of a shock. I’ve been on this site years now (hence am “obsessed,” “in need of professional help”), and think thought process as important as take away conclusions. This is because in a conflict like this one’s opponent is not going to go away. Winning is living with opponents. If I bullet attack someone (which I indeed have done) all that happens is that that person’s views are reinforced, as I, now labeled, confirm some typology of battle fiercely and intimately engaged. I believe in human rights, but know this a precarious position in this conflict. I admire Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., Archbishop Romeo, but was an evolutionary biologist and game theorist, so do not hold the ontology of these men. I know the world is not like me, yet I want the world to flourish. So, here, on this site, I am stuck, for to those angered at me I cannot deny a place; nor, however, can I condone those denying a place to others. All the talk is toward realization that take home isn’t going to do it–it’s other’s home as well.

            And violence is very possible, on both or all sides (as there are more than two sides). I don’t want to see the bombings again. Nor do I want to see the lives of Palestinians whipped for the bombings past.

            And I just did it again, talk wise. Nice of you to ask.

            Reply to Comment
        • Philos

          I would hardly called the military draft “natural.” It is, in fact, unnatural given its overall rarity in human history. It was inaugurated by France in the revolution but really only took off in the late 19th century as a very self-conscious effort to do two things: dampen the socialist ardor of the French and German working-classes, and two, intimidate the hell out of their neighbours. Until this period soldiers were recruited from the dregs of society. Even in village based levies of the Middle Ages, only the local bottom of the barrel were sent off. Natural is not a word one ought to use to describe the draft

          Reply to Comment
          • Perhaps I should have said “standard mechanism in this day,” however, I think the used qualifier “when active” saves the day. The draft is not going to go away. It is one of the fundamental integrative mechanisms of Israel. A lottery may come, but Syria alone shows the government, and a majority of its people, will not remove the draft foreseeably.

            Reply to Comment
          • Philos

            The draft will be abolished when it becomes too expensive, i.e., in the near future. The IDF is a fat, bloated and wasteful bureaucratic beast propped up by American dollars and German euros

            Reply to Comment
          • The US isn’t going to withdraw funding. I have no idea of EU funding.

            Yes, the IDF is undoubtedly bloated and it is not clear ground troops are well trained–e.g., the second Lebanon War–although the IDF did get where it wanted to go, just at high price.

            I think it sometime before the draft is removed; a lottery draft, yes, that would be a compromise with funding and bloating.

            I’ve heard that much of the Israeli middle class runs on serious credit card debt. A wall may be approaching, but Israel’s military history and present self defined threats are not likely to easily see the collapse of the draft. As it is, I believe soldiers are paid little; a real voluntary army would be expensive, even with bloating cuts. I would favor moving to high tech weapons to assuage military anxiety. If I thought 100 cruise missiles would finally lay to rest the “see how thin we are” response I would give them. Big weapons are actually harder to employ with impunity. But I kind of doubt the thin anxiety would leave.

            And the draft does have a real social glue function. Neither you nor I may like it, but it exists. This adds further friction against its abandonment.

            Although everything I do hereon is useless, I try to work with what is. I can’t wait for the collapse of Israel’s military or economy. Well, I could, because what I think doesn’t matter anyhow, but I don’t want to do it nonetheless.

            Reply to Comment
    2. bob wisby

      There will always be a need on Israel’s part, for leaders who aren’t afraid of getting their hands dirty. Right from the beginning, we’ve appointed leaders who were just as at home rolling barrels of explosives into hotel lobbies as they were at the conference table. None of our leaders have been the sort who would balk at dressing up as arabs, getting in quick, killing as many as possible and making a quick exit. Hands on men, that’s what Israel needs. And all this talk of peace. What is peace? Bob Dylan once said that ‘Peace is the moment you’re reloading your rifle’. Israelis know this, and Israel’s leaders know that the minute ‘peace’ broke out, the moment antisemitism ceased, the state would evaporate. There will be no peace. And we should thank our lucky stars that it’s not us getting shot, beaten, humiliated and dispossessed, but the others.

      Reply to Comment
    3. Ginger Eis

      “(…). Therefore, it can be safely predicted, based on the American and South African experiences, that until there is a peace treaty with Palestine, and probably for 15 or 20 years after, Israel will continue to produce military politicians. (…)”.

      Correct. And incorrect. The conclusion: ‘continued production of military politicians in Israel before and after peace Treaty with the Arabs, not just Palestinians(you forget Syria and Lebanon)’ flows directly forth from Israel’s past reality/experience. Said reality allows for safe predictions of future political reality. The American- and South African experiences may be used as examples/for comparison, but may not function as the premise for the conclusion drawn. That would amount to a ‘non-sequitur’. Essentially, your conclusion is correct, but benched on a wrong premise.

      Reply to Comment
    4. Philos,
      First I’m much more an academic than a journalist. I have a doctorate in International Relations. I don’t claim that all the factors behind Israel’s military-politician class are the same as those with the Boers in South Africa or the Americans. Just the basics: a minimal number to be able to derive lessons from and that they were all part of a democratic structure. And yes, South Africa had a herrenvolk democracy. In France, only one of the three former Generals, De Gaulle, was elected national leader. Marshal Petain served as defense minister and then as prime minister very briefly as the country was in the process of surrendering to Germany and then as the leader of Vichy France from 1940-44. Koenig was briefly defense minister in the 1950s. So it would be a case of one French former general compared to two Israeli former generals. In Britain the only former general in the last 200 years to serve as prime minister was Arthur Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington, and this was before Britain was a democracy. My minimum standard for declaring a class to exist was two important figures each in two separate waves or generations. Of democracies only the U.S., South Africa, and Israel met this standard.

      Reply to Comment