What Happened to Israel’s “Army of the People”?

Israel’s new right-wing government loves the army and hates its commanders. They are especially hated by ministers Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben Gvir. The first served in the army only partially and was suspected of planning a terrorist act during the Gaza disengagement. The second did not serve at all: the army disqualified him because of his identification with the racist Meir Kahane and his involvement in violent acts. The two are today working vigorously to save the army from its senior officers. Smotrich accuses Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi of politicizing the army, tweeting: “Those who want to keep the IDF united as the people’s army, consensual and outside of politics, should enact a minimum ten-year cooling-off period for chiefs of staff” before they can enter politics. Ben Gvir joined him in tweeting “keep the IDF free from politics.” According to them, the Chief of Staff has become a divisive figure that harms the “people’s army,” and in their eyes the last three chiefs – Benny Gantz, Gadi Eisenkot and Kochavi himself – are evidence of this. These generals were previously objects of admiration symbolizing national unity, but in the eyes of those mandated to establish a right-wing government, they are despised.

The Elor Azaria affair was a defining event. In March 2016, this soldier shot a Palestinian who had attacked soldiers with a knife in Hebron and was lying wounded and helpless on the ground, killing him even though he no longer threatened anyone. Then Chief of Staff Eisenkot issued an unequivocal statement: “These are not IDF values and this is not IDF culture,” and he was backed by Defense Minister Bogi Ya’alon. At first PM Bibi Netanyahu supported his Chief of Staff and Defense Minister, but when he understood that the most of the Israeli public favored Azaria, he changed his position, calling the soldier “our child.”

Since then, the rift between the top army brass and Netanyahu has only widened, culminating in the moment of coalition-building when he allowed Smotrich and Ben Gvir to dismantle the army. The powers related to West Bank settlements, as well as Civil Administration in the occupied territories, have been taken from the army and transferred to Smotrich, who has received (in addition to the Finance Ministry) the curious title of “Minister within the Defense Ministry.” Likewise, the Border Police units stationed in the West Bank have been reallocated to Ben Gvir. In short, control over 3 million Palestinians passes from the military to Smotrich and Ben Gvir. When Kochavi met with Netanyahu and expressed his disapproval, he was accused of “politicizing” the people’s army.

After Israel’s founding, when the people’s army was established, it reflected a wall-to-wall Israeli consensus. This has long ceased to be the case. Today, Elor Azaria is an authentic expression of what the right wing (elsewhere too) glorifies as “the people,” and Netanyahu, with his populist sensibilities, quickly understood this. The values of “the people” are remarkably compatible with the values of Smotrich and Ben Gvir, while the values of IDF leadership no longer fit the Zeitgeist.

Since 1967, hundreds of thousands of Israeli men and women have done their mandatory military service in the occupied territories, the West Bank and Gaza. Here they have been forced to perform the most despicable actions, such as standing at checkpoints, entering civilian homes at night, demolishing houses, arresting suspects, enforcing closures, protecting settlers and sometimes killing Palestinians. All this with one goal: to maintain Israeli control over the West Bank and Gaza. The myth of being the most moral army in the world, valuing purity of arms and human rights, has long been eroded.

Over the years, a fracture has formed within the people’s army, reflecting a deep division in Israeli society. Urban, wealthy, liberal Israel, whose members carry a foreign passport for a time of need, does not police the West Bank. Its children find themselves in cyber units, and for them the army is a springboard to higher education and enrichment in private high-tech companies. The peripheral, poorer Israel, the Israel that does not have the option of an extra passport, is more conservative and patriotic by default. Most of them see Arabs as enemies and liberals as traitors.

The youngsters with only one passport eagerly wait to enlist in “meaningful” military service. The Kafir Brigade, responsible for policing the West Bank, welcomes them with open arms. After all, someone has to do the dirty work. After military service, they will find themselves in jobs that don’t require academic qualifications, jobs without promotion or appreciation. Their frustration, channelled toward abuse of Palestinians in their army years, is channelled post-army to support for the likes of Ben Gvir.

At the end of 1988, when the IDF was still the people’s army, and in an attempt to forcefully suppress the first intifada, Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin gave the order to “break the arms and legs” of stone-throwers. The sight of Israeli soldiers abusing Palestinians ignited a huge international protest. The security establishment recognized that excessive force would transform the IDF into an army of thugs.

Four years later, in 1992, Rabin was elected prime minister. A year later he signed the Oslo Accords with PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat. The ingenious Israeli idea was to quit policing the population centers in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, handing them over to the newly created Palestinian Authority. In response to his critics, Rabin issued his famous statement that the Palestinian police would fight Hamas “without the [Israeli] High Court and without [the human-rights organization] B’Tselem.” That did not appease Rabin’s critics on the Right. He was assassinated, the Oslo Accords are forgotten, and the Palestinian question has completely disappeared from public discourse. Israeli governments of various political shades have succeeded, in cooperation with the Palestinian Authority, to create a semblance of security and stability that has so far kept the situation from exploding. Employment permits for hundreds of thousands of Palestinians in Israel, as well as a certain restraint on settlement construction, has created a veneer of economic peace.

Yet this economic peace has been based not only on Israel’s iron hand but also on the Palestinian Authority, which has now lost the trust of its people. In fact, the new Israeli government wants to go back 30 years, take off the gloves and bring back what it calls “governance.” Settler-fascists like Smotrich and Ben Gvir have decided to end the economic peace, and the rift with the military brass cannot be patched over. The division of labor is clear. Smotrich will legitimize the illegal outposts and expand the settlements through his power in the Civil Administration, while Ben Gvir’s security forces will break the arms and legs of Palestinians who dare to resist.

The Haaretz headline on December 28 was “Chaos.” The writer David Grossman, whose son was killed during military service, predicts chaos under the new government. While lamenting the mutual hatred and disgust between Jews today, he writes that “the occupation also evidently won’t end in the foreseeable future; it is already stronger than all the forces now active in the political arena.” For him, this is one of many issues on which he disagrees with Netanyahu. He does not view the occupation as the engine that drives fascism, hatred for Arabs, and hatred for those who speak of Israel’s presence in the West Bank as “occupation.”

Contrary to Grossman, the occupation is not “stronger than all the forces now active in the political arena.” Fact: the occupation encounters fierce opposition from the Palestinians. The weakness of Grossman and his camp vis-a-vis the fascist right stems from the fact that they have never seen, and still do not see, the Palestinians as allies in constructing a shared democratic and egalitarian state. The Zionist Left that Grossman represents sees Palestinians as a demographic threat to Israel’s existence as Jewish and democratic. Therefore, it has always sought a political solution involving separation, even though this is no longer possible. In reality, there remain only two alternatives: either an apartheid state or a single democratic state between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean. The opposition to Netanyahu opposes both, so it had no concrete program to offer the electorate, thus opening the way for Netanyahu’s sixth term.

About Yacov Ben Efrat