Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, then-Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon, IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot, and other officials at a news conference in Jerusalem, October 2015.
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 not “want a soldier to empty a magazine on a girl with scissors”—a reference to shootings of scissors-wielding Palestinian teenagers by Israeli security forces in exchanges of violence that some right-wing Israelis see as justified. More notably, in a speech delivered on Israel’s Holocaust Remembrance Day in early May, Yair Golan, the IDF’s deputy chief of staff, compared the racism and xenophobia roiling Israel to the ills of Weimar Germany—an allusion to the unprecedented protests launched by right-wing Israelis against the IDF’s decision to jail a soldier who shot an immobilized Palestinian attacker in the head in the West Bank city of Hebron in March.

Golan’s comments were an implicit criticism of Israel’s civilian leadership, and they sparked a right-wing backlash against the military. Netanyahu rebuked the general and demanded that he retract his statement. And when Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon, himself a former IDF chief of staff, countered by urging Israeli officers to continue to speak out publicly, Netanyahu summoned him for what the prime minister’s office described as a “clarification conversation.” A few days later, Yaalon resigned from the defense ministry, apparently under pressure from Netanyahu, who handed over his portfolio to the right-wing politician Avigdor Lieberman in an attempt to expand the narrow coalition led by the Likud party in the Knesset.

The IDF leadership, however, is not as moderate as the recent drama suggests. Eisenkot can hardly be considered a dove: after all, he was the architect of the Dahiyah Doctrine—so called after a Beirut neighborhood flattened by Israeli bombs during the second Lebanon war—which proposes inflicting immense destruction on any civilian settlement used by militants as a staging ground for rocket fire and which the IDF employed in its recent campaigns against Hamas in Gaza. And it was Golan who was censured by his superiors in 2007 for allowing soldiers under his command in the West Bank to use Palestinian civilians as human shields, despite a Supreme Court decision banning the practice.

Clearly, restraint is not the IDF’s only trait. So what accounts for the moderating role that the military leadership has recently attempted to play? And what explains its contrarian attitude toward Israel’s top politicians?

Theorists of civil-military relations hold that military officials act politically to discourage civilian leaders from undermining the military’s resources and its organizational and professional autonomy. By this logic, the Israeli brass is neither pathologically hawkish nor dovish but, rather, just jealously guarding its own organizational interests—which the government has put at risk in recent years by threatening the IDF’s popular status, its access to state funding, and its ability to control its troops. The latest round of violence with the Palestinians has brought these challenges to the fore, so the IDF’s leaders have fought back: not for the sake of moderation but for that of their own interests. The brass may genuinely believe in what it is doing, but its primary motivations are not ideological.

Right-wing protesters demonstrate outside a military court during a hearing for an Israeli soldier accused of shooting a wounded Palestinian assailant, near the southern Israeli city of Kiryat Malachi, March 2016.
Amir Cohen / Files / REUTERS

REPUTATIONAL RISK

The IDF’s main interest is to preserve its reputation as the people’s army: a depoliticized organization that transcends the divisions in Israeli society, offers a crucial venue for upward social mobility, and is essential to the nation’s defense and self-image. For years, the IDF has enjoyed more public confidence than any other Israeli institution. That status is important because it legitimizes the massive demands that the IDF places on the Israeli population in the form of military casualties, conscription, and public expenditures.

One way Israeli politicians can threaten the IDF’s reputation is by dragging it into conflicts it cannot win. Since the 1980s, this has increasingly been a problem, as Israel’s conventional foes in the region have been displaced as targets of concern by nonstate actors such as Hamas and Hezbollah. Enemies of this type pose a vexing challenge: constraints on the use of force in urban warfare preclude Israel from making full use of its military firepower against them, so the IDF must send ground troops into risky situations to close the gap, as it did during the 2006 second Lebanon war and the 2014 Gaza war. That tactic increases the number of IDF casualties, something that does not sit well with much of Israeli society, which has become increasingly sensitive to military deaths since the first Lebanon war, in the 1980s. To the extent that such costs are hotly debated and often publicly opposed, the IDF has a reduced ability to win asymmetrical conflicts, and the close scrutiny paid by the media and other civilian groups to Israel’s campaigns only heightens the officers’ fears of suffering reputational or political damage from botched military adventures.

The IDF’s leaders likely see a new round of hostilities as unwinnable—and therefore undesirable.

Under such circumstances, it is safe to assume that the IDF’s leaders see a new round of hostilities against armed militias in the West Bank or against Hamas in the Gaza Strip as unwinnable—and therefore undesirable. That explains why, in recent years, the IDF has pushed for policies, from the easing of the blockade on Gaza to the maintenance of security cooperation with the Palestinian Authority, that could help avert large-scale conflicts. And it helps explain why the IDF has recently called for greater restraint on the part of security forces in the West Bank. By limiting its military campaigns to instances in which the political alternatives have been exhausted and Israel’s security is clearly at risk, the IDF command seeks to build domestic and international legitimacy for the use of the overwhelming force it believes is necessary to end wars quickly.

LIEBERMAN'S MARK

The IDF is not only working to protect its popular status; it is also attempting to safeguard its material resources. Since 1985, Israel’s defense spending as a proportion of its GDP has plummeted—from about 19 percent in that year to around six percent in 2014. Despite this decline, since 2011, public pressure to make further cuts to military expenditures has increased, driven by many Israelis’ dissatisfaction with the IDF’s underwhelming performance in its recent conflicts with Hamas and Hezbollah and by a widespread popular desire to trim taxation and shift government spending toward social welfare. In 2015, according to poll conducted by researchers at Tel Aviv University and the Israel Democracy Institute, 41 percent of Jewish Israelis thought that too much of the state budget was devoted to defense. And for the first time, in the same poll, most Jewish Israelis gave the IDF’s administrative and organizational capacity a far lower grade than its military capabilities.

In such an environment, the military leadership has two chief interests. The first is to maintain its support among Israel’s powerful upper middle class, a major source of tax revenue, which has distanced itself from the IDF since the 1990s and has become less willing to pay high taxes in support of defense spending, sacrifice the lives of its young people in wars, and enlist in combat units. Showing restraint in contrast to the right-wing government, which draws much of its support from the religious and the lower classes, is one way for the IDF to court wealthier, more secular Israelis. The other interest relates to strategic planning: the IDF is working to divert resources from routine security to preparedness for emerging threats, such as the potential future nuclearization of Iran and the empowerment of its proxies. So that it can focus on these needs, the IDF has a vital interest in limiting what it views as avoidable military adventures in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank.

Benjamin Netanyahu and Avigdor Lieberman during a campaign rally in Ashdod, Israel, January 2013.
Benjamin Netanyahu and Avigdor Lieberman during a campaign rally in Ashdod, Israel, January 2013.
Amir Cohen / File Photo / REUTERS

Last but not least, the Netanyahu government’s handling of the recent violence has challenged the IDF’s ability to control its troops and enforce its own standards of appropriate military conduct. The killing in Hebron and the public campaign in defense of the soldier responsible reflected a fundamental change: for the first time, voters and politicians on the national stage were questioning the IDF’s power to discipline its own troops for what appeared to be a basic violation of the military code (the killing of a prostrate and wounded prisoner in cold blood).

Nor is this the only challenge to the IDF’s authority. Since the first decade of this century, an unofficial, militia-like force has sprung up in the West Bank alongside Israel’s formal policing presence there. On the surface, this force is part of the IDF’s chain of command and is tasked with impartially securing the occupied territory. But in practice, it is committed to protecting Jewish settlers rather than the occupied Palestinian population. The blurred lines between the military units and the settlers’ armed squads, the fact that the units are staffed largely by settlers and graduates of religious institutions with a clear pro-settler bias, and the impact of the soldiers’ religious-nationalist socialization, mainly by the powerful Military Rabbinate: all of this has helped to create an autonomous militia that shirks its duties to protect the Palestinians and ensure the settlers’ compliance with the law.

The IDF’s attempts to enforce restraint should therefore be seen not only as an attempt to keep the so-called third intifada from boiling over but also as an effort to improve the IDF’s internal control by ensuring that its troops abide by unified standards of conduct. In this context, Golan’s statements about the worrying trends in Israeli society can be read as a warning against the diffusion of extremism in the military ranks and the danger that such extremism poses to the IDF’s chain of command.

What will come next in the IDF’s standoff with the Netanyahu government? As the Haaretz journalist Amos Harel has argued, Netanyahu’s appointment of Lieberman to the defense ministry may represent an attempt to "reeducate" the General Staff along lines that better suit the prime minister. Lieberman will certainly have broad latitude to discipline the IDF: the government is pursuing neither new peace initiatives nor new military adventures, so it does not need the generals’ support to legitimate contentious ventures and is under little pressure to placate them.

Whether Lieberman will attempt to leave a permanent mark on the IDF at the cost of further discord with the generals remains unclear. It is safe to predict, however, that he will push to modify the military’s rules of engagement so that Israeli soldiers have more freedom to kill. And it is likely that, without Yaalon’s backing, the IDF’s leaders will pare back the calls for restraint that have so far defined their standoff with Netanyahu.

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  • YAGIL LEVY is a professor of public policy and political sociology at the Open University of Israel and the author of Israel’s Death Hierarchy: Casualty Aversion in a Militarized Democracy.
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