Although Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon have reconciled, the feud will recur – because both were correct. Netanyahu is right that in a democracy, “the army is subordinate to the government.”
But Ya’alon is correct that IDF officers must “continue to be brave, not only on the battlefield, but also at the conference table.”
This conflict is ironic. Today’s IDF leadership belies the usual Dr. Strangelove caricature of warcrazed generals rushing to war, seeking to pulverize the enemy. Israel’s officers are extraordinary, life-loving soldiers, veritable Dr. Strangers-to-hatred, demanding restraint in fighting the enemy, warning about extremism in society. They are defending democracy not only on the battlefield but in the political arena too. Their concern for the country’s values and fear of extremism is admirable.
Still, they could use some coaching. Generals are notorious for being politically tone deaf, for lacking nuance regarding civilian politics. Their passion and vigilance are admirable, but their rhetoric and tactics need polishing.
To begin with some hindsight, in the spirit of generals always fighting the last war Israeli generals should ban Holocaust analogies from their verbal arsenals, especially during Remembrance Day. Most such comparisons are inaccurate, inflammatory and uncalled-for. There are so many other ways to express concern about Israel’s democratic vitality without claiming hysterically that Israel is mimicking its worst enemy. Germany lacked the democratic tradition Israel has already developed in its few decades as a state. Germany lacked the liberalism and liberty embedded in Israel’s, Judaism’s and Zionism’s DNA . And a few marginal loudmouths and hooligans cannot compare to the mass insanity that hijacked once-civilized but never fully democratized Germany in the 1930s and 1940s.
Even the Zionist Union MK Zouheir Bahloul, who refused to call a Palestinian who stabbed an IDF soldier in Hebron a “terrorist,” rejects the epidemic of stupid Holocaust analogies. Asked about the increasingly popular comparison of the Holocaust with the Palestinian “Nakba,” or catastrophe, Bahloul showed more wisdom than former Knesset speaker Avrum Burg and many Israeli academics.
Refusing to compare the mass murder of six million Jews to the partially voluntary, partially imposed displacement of 700,000 Palestinian Arabs, Bahloul insisted there is no “event in the history of humankind that compares to the horrific Holocaust that took place on European soil.”
A second lesson to drill in to these drill-sergeant types is that they operate in a transparent echo chamber. Just as they learned after the Second Lebanon War to leave their cell phones outside briefing rooms because these technologies can be used to track and eavesdrop, the world of social media means that public statements are broadly amplified, and can be pinged worldwide. Last week, IDF deputy chief Yair Golan was not well known. One inappropriately delivered Holocaust analogy later, “Yair Golan” and “Holocaust” generate 121,000 hits on Google.
Coaching about social media entails learning what to say, not just what not to say. IDF officers can use their enhanced platforms to shape the conversation, mold opinion, lead Israel’s brave young soldiers – and a willing public yearning for bold, moral, leadership. This current power struggle has demonstrated how much IDF leaders strive to be the world’s most moral army. It is not a talking point but a cherished goal; it’s not for Israel’s image but for Israel’s self-image, Israel’s soul. The more the world eavesdrops on that debate, the more the world’s fair but silent majority will respect Israel and its noble defense forces.
Finally, these soldiers must realize that they are engaged in a propaganda battle to preserve Israel’s good name, not just a military battle ensuring Israel’s survival. The IDF has learned to sacrifice operational secrecy sometimes to score PR points during battle.
Similarly, IDF officers should be briefed about the systematic campaign to delegitimize Israel – and learn how their words and deeds can combat the web of lies seducing so many naïve types – and so many connivers.
Obviously, winning the real battles is more important than mastering these virtual duels. But sensitivity to the multi-dimensional assault on Israel’s good name as a strategic threat is important too.
Ultimately, I blame our enemies’ nefarious terrorism for the moral dilemmas and tensions imposed on our soldiers and I prefer relying on civilians to preserve Israel’s democratic soul and good name, leaving soldiers to keep Israel alive. The chain of command in a democracy, with civilians ruling, remains essential. As Harry Truman explained about his firing the popular but insolent General Douglas MacArthur, “I didn’t fire MacArthur because he was a stupid s.o.b., although he was, but that’s not against the law for generals….I fired him because he disobeyed the orders of his commander in chief.”
Still, these days demand multi-tasking – and heroics from various sectors. Netanyahu is correct to assert civilian control, although Defense Minister Ya’alon is a civilian politician in Netanyahu’s own party, no longer chief of staff. It is a shame that Ya’alon’s fellow party members are some of the anti-democratic demagogues Ya’alon’s army colleagues feel compelled to refute. Menachem Begin and Ze’ev Jabotinsky would ban these goons from their own party.
We most need leadership from politics and civil society that defends democracy. In its absence or weakness, we will rely, as we always do in emergencies, on Israel’s extraordinary, moral, idealistic, life-loving soldiers, who are strangers to hatred.