Divisions deepen between Israeli right and military establishment

Divisions deepen between Israeli right and military establishment
5 min read
19 May, 2016
Comment: State Comptroller's report criticising the actions of the IDF during Israel's 2014 war with Hamas provides capital to the right wing's continuing assault on the Israeli military.
The Right’s disregard for the law has resulted in a clash with the military [Getty]

There has always been a special relationship between the Israeli government and its armed forces, the Israel Defence Force (IDF). The cordiality of this relationship is visible through the consistent presence of highly decorated former Israeli soldiers in key cabinet positions.

This trajectory from directing a Merkava tank to sitting in the Knesset chamber has always been a mainstay of secular Zionism (Jewish nationalism) as the liberal minded Ashkenazi elite have dominated these institutions.

However in recent years, the swing to the religious right in Israeli politics and society has had deep-seated ramifications for the military and its relationship with the political establishment. According to a 2010 report in the Israeli military journal Ma'arachot, the proportion of religious infantry officers rose from 2.5 percent in 1990 to 31.4 percent in 2007.

This rise in religiosity within the officer corps has been mirrored by the growth of religious nationalist parties like the Jewish Home. This party's leader, Naftali Bennett often cites his service in the elite Sayaret Matkal alongside his religious nationalism when advocating a more hawkish stance towards the Palestinians and the expansion of settlements on occupied territory.

Bennett is just one of a number of MK's across the coalition government who detest the two-state solution. Accompanying this is a more strident posture with regards to Hamas and other manifestations of Palestinian resistance to Israel.

According to a 2010 report in the Israeli military journal Ma'arachot, the proportion of religious infantry officers rose from 2.5 percent in 1990 to 31.4 percent in 2007.

Hardly a beacon of progressive human rights values or the rule of law, the Israeli military still purports to be a 'moral' fighting force. A strict code of conduct was enshrined into the Israeli army's ethics, at a time when the emerging Israeli state purported to be a light unto the nations; progressive, inclusive and liberal.

However as the decades following the 1967 war have rolled by, the Israeli military's propaganda machine has been unable to defend the occupation of a largely defenceless Palestinian population. As the US brokered peace process continues to prove to be a foil for prolonged Israeli aggression, the PA has moved to internationalise the conflict through various institutions, notably the International Criminal Court.

This move has been condemned by the US, though it still sent shockwaves through Israel's military establishment, and under the Geneva conventions it is the generals who will bear the brunt of any criticism. The likelihood of any Israeli general or politician being dragged in front of the notoriously lethargic criminal court is slim, but its referrals will serve to tarnish the Israeli army's image on the international stage.

Public pronouncements by high-ranking officials show the sensitivity of the military the establishment with regards to the occupied territories. When speaking to Israeli Army radio in April, Army Chief of staff Lieutenant General Gadi Eisenkot stated "It is incumbent upon us as commanders to set a high moral threshold in order to delineate proper norms of behaviour." A number of weeks later Major General Yair Golan compared the rising trend of racism in Israel to pre-war Nazi Germany, at a Holocaust memorial event.

Both comments came at a time of increased pressure for the Israeli military after Israeli soldier Elor Azaria was charged with manslaughter for shooting dead a Palestinian knife attacker, in direct contravention of the aforementioned IDF's code of conduct.

The court investigation, in which the prosecution initially threatened murder charges, descended into a public circus across the early weeks of April after various coalition politicians proclaimed their support for the soldier, including Bennett, buoyed by mass protests from the right.

Netanyahu, unwilling to lose ground to his nationalist rivals within the government, met with the soldier's family to show his commiserations. Numerous other Likudniks support a pardon for the soldier if convicted. However there is discord within the coalition over the soldier and particularly the treatment of the military regarding his charges.

The right's consistent disregard for the law, has resulted in nothing short of a war between the Israeli right and the military establishment

Defence Minister Moshe Ya'alon has slammed Bennett for criticising the IDF. This is just the latest spat in long running feud between Ya'alon and various members of the far right within the Netanyahu coalition. In January the eviction of Israeli settlers who had set up an illegal squat in the Palestinian city of Hebron, was rubber-stamped by Ya'alon earning the ire of far right, who promised to destabilise the coalition.

The right's consistent disregard for the law, has resulted in nothing short of a war between the Israeli right and the military establishment. A recent leaked report may serve to grant one side more ammunition in this very public battle.

State Comptroller Joseph Shapira's leaked report to the media is a withering indictment of both government and military indecisiveness and wastefulness concerning its actions in Gaza in 2014. Sending shockwaves through Israel last week, the former Chief of Staff Benny Gantz is the biggest victim, with the over-indulgent use of munitions and tank regiments subject to specific criticism, whilst the intelligence community is seen as vacillating at key moments.

The only politician left unscathed by the report's revelations is Naftali Bennett. Bennett, a cabinet member at the time as well as now, had long warned of the danger of Hamas tunnels and is praised in the report for this foresight. He is likely to use this political capital in the protracted cold war between the Israeli military establishment and the far right, advocating for a more hawkish stance on Hamas and other militants.

Bennett may also use this PR coup as leverage on Netanyahu to retain the Justice ministry for his party which is under threat from the possibility of a coalition deal with the more centrist Zionist Union.

The religious and nationalist right, galvanised by positive polling and a strong grassroots movement, is poised to sweep everything out of its way en route to enacting its destructive policies against the Palestinians - including the once indomitable institution of the IDF.

Nick Rodrigo is a freelance researcher working for the Afro-Middle East Centre based in Johannesburg. He holds an MA in the Theory and Practice of Human Rights from the University of Essex, and has previously worked with Iranian and Palestinian human rights organisations.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.