The sword and the word

New study of the army-government axis in Israel entertains but exaggertaes in making its case


Patrick Tyler’s "Fortress Israel" falls into what we, in war studies, call “civil-military relations”: it is the same subject in which I completed my PhD in 1994. My overall conclusion was very similar to Tyler’s, namely that the military in Israel is overwhelmingly influential and belligerent, often pushing for action.

Looking back, I can see I did take it a bit too far. And Tyler’s depiction, too, of the IDF as overwhelmingly influential, aggressive, ever on the hair-trigger to deal with its enemies, is exaggerated.

There are some classic examples of the Israeli military imposing its will on the politicians, such as in May 1967, when the generals rebelled against Prime Minister Levi Eshkol, pressing him hard to open fire (General Narkiss: “Why are you so scared?” General Weizman: “If you attack, then the people of Israel will carry you on their shoulders but, if you don’t, they will never forgive you”). And, during the war itself, the advancing forces ignored the instructions of their Defence Minister, Moshe Dayan, who warned them not to seize the Gaza Strip (“it’s a nest of snakes”), or to occupy the Suez Canal (“if you do then we’ll sit just 200 metres from the Egyptians and they’ll renew the war”).

But then, there have been occasions when the military acted to moderate the bellicose instincts of politicians. Most notably General Yisrael Tal who, immediately after the Yom Kippur War, flatly refused to obey Defence Minister Dayan’s order to renew hostilities with Egypt so as to improve Israel’s military positions.
Now, in 2012, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his Defence Minister, Ehud Barak, appearing keen to strike at Iran, it is the military that airs its opposition to such an attack.

Unlike the picture painted by Patrick Tyler, the true history is somewhat mixed. Sometimes, the Israeli military’s aggression dictates policy; sometimes it moderates it.

In his characterisation of an overwhelmingly influential military, Tyler also ignores a trend that has been apparent since 1973: a clear decline in the public’s regard for the military establishment in Israel. I still recall a visit to Tel Aviv with my mother to eat chicken livers in her favourite Tiv-Taam Restaurant in Allenby Street when, all of a sudden, the traffic stopped. The reason: a military general got out of his car to buy falafel and the entire street stopped to watch him.

This was in the aftermath of the great 1967 victory, when the generals were regarded as gods and everyone knew and celebrated the names of such men as Moshe Dayan and Ariel Sharon. But, nowadays, I doubt whether the name Benny Gantz means anything to anyone (he is the Chief of General Staff of the Israel Defence Forces).

In his analysis of the actual relationship between the political and the military classes in Israel, Tyler is quite original. For, rather than focusing on civilian and military institutions (which is quite boring) he concentrates instead on personalities.

Given that many of Israel’s politicians and generals — from David Ben Gurion, through Shimon Peres, Ariel Sharon and many others — were larger-than-life figures, the end result is, almost inevitably, a most entertaining book.

Indeed, while Tyler’s central argument (like that of my PhD thesis) is a bit shaky, his account is nonetheless fascinating. A seasoned American journalist, Tyler knows his history and how to tell it.

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