The letter is important and must be understood in the context of Israel’s distinctive framework of civil-military relations, so different from other Western democracies. In most countries it is not considered normal for serving or former intelligence, defense and law enforcement officers to publicly criticize the head of government and provide unsolicited advice on matters of war and peace; and when they do, there are severe consequences for them. For instance, a clash between President Obama and Gen. Stanley McChrystal over policy in Afghanistan resulted in the latter’s dismissal.
But in Israel such critiques are considered normal. The consequence is that policymaking – civilian decision-making – is not just the purview of the government, but of a larger community of individuals and groups associated with military and security agencies. The letter’s importance, then, lies not in the public nature of its critique, but in its substance.
Certainly the letter highlights disagreements between Netanyahu and the security establishment that stretch back to his previous term, particularly over Iran. But the issue is much bigger than Netanyahu or Iran, and it gets to the critical issue of the balance of power between civilians and military or security officials in a democracy. In Israel’s case, the specific historical development of the country and the role of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) and security agencies in the creation and development of the state have tipped the balance more toward the latter. Yet definitions of democracy, at least as promoted in the west, include far more civilian oversight than seems to exist in the Israeli case.
In addition to the security needs of Israel after its establishment in 1948, the military was used as an agent of nation-building (which excluded the haredim – ultra-Orthodox – and the Arab minority). The IDF founded agricultural settlements around the country, in isolated places and near the borders, to serve as first lines of defense against Israel’s enemies. The process of defending the country was tied to the Zionist enterprise – settling and working the land and redeeming the Jewish people through manual labor. The military absorbed tens of thousands of new immigrants and inculcated them with emerging Israeli values, norms and practices – including teaching them the new national language, Hebrew.
More broadly the IDF was held up as the embodiment of collectivism and self-sacrifice for the good of the nation, as well as the repository of centuries of Jewish collective memories. The early Zionist effort to create a “new Jew,” distinct from the old Jews of Europe who suffered persecution and murder, made the military a paragon of Jewish power, self-defense and strength in the face of the weakness that marked Jews everywhere else who let themselves be oppressed and, worst of all, be led “like lambs to the slaughter” in the Holocaust.
The expansion of state capacity led to the creation or building up of other security and intelligence agencies, and they, too, were incorporated into this process of development. As Israel aged, and the threat environment remained the same, these security agencies came to assume a prominent role in the foreign policy decision-making process. Their expertise was presumed to be almost all that was necessary for the government to decide on foreign and security policy, not just on decisions involving the use of force, but on diplomatic and political issues, as well.
And they came to play a prominent role in domestic policy, including in budget debates. The occupation of the West Bank and Gaza further facilitated their place at the decision-making table, as the IDF was used to administer the captured territories and, during the First Intifada from 1987 to 1993, to engage in riot control.
Finally, the ease with which defense officials moved from their security jobs into politics meant that they brought with them their expertise, connections, authority and emphasis on security frameworks for resolving problems. It is no coincidence that most defense ministers have been former high-ranking military officers, or that Israelis indicate they prefer as prime minister someone with experience in defense. Levi Eshkol was prime minister during the 1967 crisis leading to the war that year. He was widely criticized for appearing hesitant and bumbling at a time when many Israelis feared their country would be destroyed; many Israelis called for him to be replaced by one or more IDF commanders, including former chief of staff-turned-politician Moshe Dayan. Similarly, when Labor leader Amir Peretz became defense minister in 2006, he was widely mocked for not having the extensive military experience his three immediate predecessors – all high-ranking generals – had.
The prominent role of the defense establishment has led to the emergence of a security network within Israel – a loose set of associations of both current defense and intelligence officials and former officers now working in politics, business and academia. The network is not a sinister cabal controlling Israel’s politicians. It is a social-political network of individuals with shared ideas, common interests (though the network is by no means a monolith, as there are differences of opinion at both the tactical and the strategic level), and a similar framework for thinking about public policy problems. The network serves, in this way, as both an interest group pressing decision-makers to adopt certain positions and pursue specific policy options and as a major player in government.
The security officials’ letter should be understood in this context. A large portion of the network is comprised of what are sometimes called “doves” – those who believe Israeli withdrawal from most of the West Bank and a viable Palestinian state are necessary for Israeli security. This became a prominent argument among the network during the mid-1990s. The corollary is that the use of force is only of limited use, a stop-gap measure.
There are important implications of this seeming shift for negotiations with the Palestinians. For one thing, the letter may indicate a shift away from the peace process among security officials, who have seemingly moved closer to Netanyahu’s own preferences (and most of his government’s) for avoiding serious talks leading to a Palestinian state. Once the key foreign policy issue in Israeli political debates, it may now be moving to secondary or tertiary importance. The growing emphasis on regional solutions means Israel is more likely to refocus attention on Iran and other possible regional threats – such as Hezbollah and the Islamic State – that it can address in cooperation with Arab states such as Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia.
This is bad news for the Palestinians, who will be consigned to a secondary role in regional negotiations that affect them – a return to the way things were before the 1980s. Under these conditions Israel is more likely to seek to manage the conflict rather than resolve it, and to focus on economic development rather than political independence for Palestinians.
Civil-military relations in Israel, then, provide good examples of the impact that a security network can have on policymaking. In particular, it can help shape government policy depending on whether it is in agreement with the government in power or not, particularly compared to other western states, where security officials are not allowed to play that kind of role in policymaking.
The next question is how to understand the balance between ends and means. If the end goal is to achieve a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which requires an independent Palestinian state, then the means – the security network’s involvement in policymaking – seems to be a good thing, given its position. Critics of Netanyahu’s policies often, for example, point to the public declarations and exhortations of the security network to undermine his claims. But if the end goal is a democratic civilian oversight of the military/security establishment, then the security network’s involvement in politics is highly problematic, and removing it is necessary, despite the possible consequences for peacemaking. The security network’s changing priorities further complicate the question.
Brent E. Sasley (@besasley) is an associate professor of political science at the University of Texas at Arlington. A co-authored manuscript on Israeli politics will be coming out with Oxford University Press in 2015.