The Real Reasons for the IDF’s Break with Netanyahu

The Political Utility of Military Restraint

IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot, then-Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and other officials at a news conference in Jerusalem, October 2015.  Ronen Zvulun / REUTERS

In recent years, Israel’s military leadership has appeared to be more dovish than the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. From 2009 to 2012, for example, the Israel Defense Force’s top brass helped block the Netanyahu government’s plan to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities, and in 2015, IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot publicly broke from Netanyahu’s unqualified condemnation of the agreement that Tehran and six world powers reached to limit Iran’s nuclear activities.

The IDF’s leaders have also seemed more restrained than Israeli politicians when it comes to the management of relations between Israelis and Palestinians. Thus, after the latest war between Hamas and Israel ended, in the summer of 2014, IDF leaders pressed their civilian supervisors to loosen the blockade of the Gaza Strip, easing the pressure on the territory’s population and reducing the chances of renewed conflict. And it was the IDF, not the Netanyahu government, that first proposed that the Palestinian Authority regain responsibility for security in some parts of the West Bank previously policed by Israel.    

The most recent division between Israel’s civilian and military leaders concerns how to handle the latest eruption of violence between Israelis and Palestinians. In the fall of 2015, some young Palestinians began to carry out lone wolf attacks on Israeli civilians and soldiers, resulting in more than 30 Israeli deaths. Israeli security forces have responded with force, carrying out hundreds of arrest operations in the West Bank each month and killing around 200 Palestinians so far. But some right-wing politicians want to step up the response further and have pressed the IDF to loosen its rules of engagement and use greater force against suspected attackers.

The IDF leadership is not as moderate as the recent drama suggests.

The IDF’s leaders have resisted that pressure—and what is more, they have publicly called for greater moderation on the part of their soldiers and in Israeli society as a whole. Eisenkot, for example, declared in February that he did

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