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Special Interview Growing Role of the Military in Israel

The myth that the Israeli army is apolitical and does not get involved in the shaping of national policy was shattered as a result of the war in Lebanon and its aftermath. Furthermore, the involvement of the military establishment in Israeli politics is likely to increase in the next few years and exacerbate the already existing tension between the civil and the military branches of government.

This is the assessment of Dr. Yoram Peri of Tel Aviv University, who is author of the newly published book “Between Battles and Ballots” (Cambridge University Press, New York) on the role of the Israeli military in politics since the establishment of the Jewish State in 1948.

According to the 39-year-old Peri, who was an advisor to Premier Yitzhak Rabin and who spent his military service in the Israel Defense Force as a military correspondent, the myth that there is a civilian control over the military is only partly true. “In reality, a new model of civil-military partnership has emerged in Israel,” Peri said in an interview with the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

THE WEIGHT OF MILITARY INFLUENCE

He contended that, contrary to general belief, the military in Israel has considerable influence in the political life of the nation: it brings its influence to bear on foreign policy and serves as a mobility channel to the highest governmental posts. This was clearly the case with such military figures as Generals Moshe Dayan, Ezer Weizman and Rabin who later became key government ministers, Peri pointed out.

“Furthermore,” said Peri, who is currently on a lecture tour in the U.S., “the civil control over the military is rather weak.” He noted, for example, that both the Knesset and the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Security Committee were not involved with the peace negotiations with Egypt nor with the war in Lebanon.

MILITARY COUP UNLIKELY

But Peri said that despite the centrality of senior military personnel in Israeli politics, a military coup in the Jewish State “is unlikely, although in the future the involvement of the military in the political process will increase.”

He explained that a military coup of the kind that occurs in Africa and Latin American countries requires two conditions that do not exist in Israel: the alienation and segregation of the army from social institutions. “In Israel the army is a people’s army and there is no separation between the military and the people,” he said.

According to Peri, the military involvement in Israeli politics was sharply demonstrated in the Lebanese war. He said that many actions were undertaken by the army without prior consent of the government, “As a matter of fact,” he said. Gen. Raphael Eitan, who was at the time Chief of Staff, “shaped Israeli policy in Lebanon even before the war broke out. Premier (Menachem) Begin only gave his stamp of approval to Eitan’s policies.”

Peri noted that Eitan was “the most political Chief of Staff of the IDF, ever.” Eitan, Peri charged “was the first Chief of Staff to refer to the territories (the West Bank and the Gaza Strip) from an ideological point of view and not to their function from the point of view of Israel’s security. By doing so he dragged the IDF into the stormy public debate in Israel on the future of the territories.”

A turning point in the involvement of the IDF in politics came after the 1967 Six-Day War, Peri said. “The reason was because the IDF, for the first time, was charged with political administration in the territories,” he pointed out. “In addition, the fact that the national consensus on the defense issue was broken, was also a contributing reason for the growing involvement of the military in politics.”

Peri predicted that the government now headed by Premier Yitzhak Shamir will have to face ever growing involvement of the army. “With the departure of Begin from the political arena, the rule of the founding fathers of Israel has come to an end, (David) Ben Gurion, Golda Meir and Begin imposed, by their charismatic personalities, limitations on the military and kept the delicate balance between the two branches of government — the military and the civilian — intact. But now, however, without the authority of charisma and with the lack of specific rules on the issue in the law, the military might even become more influential in Israeli society,”

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