For more than half a century, retired generals have checkered Israel’s political scene, and at certain critical junctures even dominated it and shaped the country’s course.
Fifty-five years after newly retired Chief-of-Staff Moshe Dayan was appointed as Minister for Agriculture, the trend may be finally drawing to a close.
Parachuted into the political fray by his patron, David Ben-Gurion, Dayan became Defence Minister on the eve of the Six Day War, just before that war’s victorious generals flooded the political landscape: most notably Yitzhak Rabin, who joined Labor and was made Ambassador to Washington, and former air force commander Ezer Weizman, who joined Menachem Begin’s Herut Party and became Transport Minister the day after he was discharged from the military, and later, President of Israel.
In subsequent decades, three prime ministers, eight defence ministers, three foreign ministers and two presidents have been retired generals. In all, since its inception 12 of the IDF’s 18 chiefs-of-staff have gone into politics, while dozens of less famous generals also became ministers, deputy ministers and lawmakers.
The generals often brought with them a charisma that ordinary politicians possessed less frequently. At the same time, they seldom displayed knowledge, or genuine interest, in domestic affairs, gravitating instead to foreign and military affairs – a choice that was reflected in their consistent failure to serve as finance ministers.
Even so, generals-turned-statesmen frequently shaped history. Dayan and Weizman, as Foreign and Defence Ministers respectively, persuaded Menachem Begin to relinquish the Sinai Desert in return for the peace treaty with Egypt. Ariel Sharon, as defence minister, led the West Bank’s settlement drive and the invasion of Lebanon in the early 1980s. As prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin signed the Oslo Accords, Ehud Barak retreated from Lebanon, and Ariel Sharon evacuated Gaza.
As politicians, however, the generals often made mistakes that other politicians may have avoided. During his first premiership, Rabin removed from his government Labor’s longtime ally, the National Religious Party, and called an early election. Labor lost that election, its first electoral defeat ever, while the modern-Orthodox population, which during the previous three decades had been Labor’s most reliable and pragmatic ally, veered right. It has remained there ever since.
Similarly, after ignoring his promise during the 1999 election campaign to focus on social issues, Barak was dealt the worst electoral defeat in Israeli history. And more recently, Opposition Leader and former chief-of-staff Shaul Mofaz zigzagged notoriously, one morning joining Netanyahu’s Government, shortly after vowing to dedicate himself to Netanyahu’s removal, and only six weeks later leaving Netanyahu’s coalition with equal haste. Mofaz consequently collapsed in all polls, as his image as a political dilettante consolidated.
At the same time, under Ehud Barak’s leadership Labor shrank to just over one tenth of the Knesset, and then split into two even smaller factions.
The generals also frequently displayed a politically costly deficit of social skills. Rabin, responding to local kibbutzniks’ misgivings about his declared willingness to retreat from the Golan Heights, equated them to “propellers” spinning in the wind, an unwise choice of words for a politician regarding any constituency, but particularly when they are his own voters. Sharon quarrelled over the years with dozens of colleagues, aides, superiors and subordinates, Mofaz could not get on with Tzipi Livni when she was his party’s leader and Barak could not harmonise with Amir Peretz when he led Labor.
More ominously, Defence Minister Barak and Lt.-Gen (Res.) Gabi Ashkenazi ended up with such a personal rift when the latter was chief-of-staff that they reportedly ceased talking to one another. The pair’s relationship deteriorated after Barak refused to approve various appointments Ashkenazi made, and then froze dozens of other promotions of colonels and brigadier-generals that required the minister’s formal approval. Ashkenazi allegedly responded by sending spies into Barak’s office in order to find material to tarnish him publicly. The entire mess ultimately came out via an investigation by the State Comptroller’s office.
Without getting into the investigation details, it now seems that this was one quarrel too many – the political mystique of generals appears to be waning.
The 19th Knesset looks set to have no retired general heading any significant faction, given the plummeting political stock of Barak and Mofaz; the attempt by former chief-of-staff Dan Halutz to join politics has failed after he bet on Mofaz on the eve of his political collapse; and prospects of Ashkenazi joining politics have declined significantly in the wake of the revelations concerning his conduct under Barak.
All this is not to say that the generals have altogether vanished from Israeli politics. At this writing the details of the election results remain unknown, but former chief-of-staff Moshe Ya’alon is well-positioned to emerge as defence minister. Conversely, Barak might remain in his office despite his lack of a party or even a Knesset seat.
Whether or not he ends up appointed defence minister, Ya’alon is expected to retain and even upgrade his senior position both in the cabinet and in Netanyahu’s Likud party. Even so, the era of the generals is clearly reaching its end. This is not because the soft-spoken, introverted and modest Ya’alon, unlike so many other retired generals, has made no political enemies, but because generals no longer mesmerise voters, and politics no longer lures generals.
Times have changed. The days when an Israeli political conversation began and ended with military and diplomatic issues are now past. Having experimented along the years with most policy options that the generals from right and left offered, Israelis have reached a centrist consensus on that front, and have returned to debate domestic issues.
As the election approached, news of the budget deficit reaching a higher-than-expected 4.2% generated much more controversy than the more famous ongoing dilemmas about Iran’s nuclear activity or Palestinian grievances, let alone the upheaval in Syria, Egypt and Libya. As they went to the polls, Israelis seemed to care much more about politicians’ views on unemployment, the shekel, and the costs of housing, food, tuition, healthcare and welfare than they did about the politicians’ takes on Iran, the Palestinian Authority, or Obama.
Add the voters’ new emphasis on social and economic issues to the generals’ lack of insight on these issues and to the public’s diminished enthusiasm for generals turning to politics, and it is easy to understand the diminishing presence of retired generals in Israeli politics. It’s the end of an era.