Lucy Nicholson / Courtesy Reuters Former Israeli Prime Minister David Ben Gurion speaks with Israeli Major General Ariel Sharon in January, 1971.

Israel's Warlords

How the Military Rules in War and Peace

Fortress Israel: The Inside Story of the Military Elite Who Run the Country -- and Why They Can't Make Peace 

BY PATRICK TYLER. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012, 576 pp. $35.00.

Zion's Dilemmas: How Israel Makes National Security Policy 
BY CHARLES D. FREILICH. Cornell University Press, 2012, 336 pp. $49.95.

In the early afternoon of November 14, 2012, an Israeli drone hovered over the Gaza Strip and zeroed in on its target: Ahmed al-Jabari, the military leader of Hamas. A precise missile strike blew up his car, leaving him and his fellow passenger dead. The assassination, which followed two Palestinian cross-border attacks in the previous days, marked the beginning of Operation Pillar of Defense, an intense weeklong campaign of Israeli air strikes on Gaza. Those were matched by a barrage of some 1,500 rockets that Hamas and other Palestinian organizations fired on Israeli cities.

Several hours before his fateful road trip, Jabari had received the final draft of a proposal for a long-term cease-fire between Israel and Hamas, mediated by an Israeli peace activist with ties to Hamas and Egyptian intelligence officials. Israel's defense minister, Ehud Barak (and possibly also its prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu), was aware of the back-channel talks that had led to the offer. But rather than wait for Hamas' response, the leaders instead opted to kill their Palestinian interlocutor and launch a large-scale military operation, believing -- as most of their predecessors had -- that reprisals were the surest way to restore Israel's deterrence and calm the border.

This sequence of events could have served as the perfect epilogue to Patrick Tyler's Fortress Israel. Tyler, a veteran foreign correspondent and the author of several books on U.S. foreign policy, portrays Israel as the Sparta of the modern Middle East, a country that "six decades after its founding, remains . . . in thrall to an original martial impulse." Israel's leadership duo during the campaign against Gaza, Netanyahu and Barak, were simply carrying this legacy forward. The former rivals' decision to join forces after the 2009 election, Tyler writes, "revealed a common faith in military action as more likely to yield results than diplomacy or negotiation, which they held in low regard."

Netanyahu and Barak's Gaza policy would also have made a fitting case study for Charles Freilich's Zion's Dilemmas. A former Israeli defense official who served as deputy national security adviser in the government of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Freilich wrote his book in the hopes of improving the quality and effectiveness of Israeli decision-making. Israel, he laments, "has not unequivocally won a major military confrontation since 1967 and has failed to achieve its objectives in most of the major diplomatic efforts it has taken as well." Indeed, despite its military prowess, its dynamic economy, and substantial U.S. backing, Israel has neither integrated peacefully into the Middle East nor convinced the world to accept its occupation of and settlements in the West Bank.

Why? According to Freilich, Israeli policymakers are constrained by a "uniquely harsh" external environment, a parliamentary system that empowers fringe parties and produces unwieldy coalitions, and a security establishment in which the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) reign supreme. Freilich identifies five "pathologies" that characterize Israel's decision-making: it is unplanned, it is intensely political, it is informal, it is led by a prime minister who rules at the mercy of his party and his coalition, and it is driven by the military, which holds a virtual monopoly on policymaking.

That final pathology, in particular, shaped the recent Gaza operation. Back in the spring of 2012, General Benny Gantz, the IDF's chief of staff, had warned that renewed fighting in Gaza was imminent. But as the military analyst Amos Harel wrote in Haaretz after the operation ended, "It was not until the autumn that political decision makers recognized the necessity for action." Before any civilian leaders weighed in, Israel's security organs had already collected and analyzed the relevant intelligence, drafted operational plans, and prepared the necessary forces. During the campaign itself, Netanyahu practically stepped aside and allowed Barak and the generals to run the show.

Tyler and Freilich present valid criticisms of the military's dominant role in Israeli decision-making -- and surprisingly similar ones, given their opposing views on other political questions. But their proposed fixes -- for Tyler, stricter American restraint of Israel; for Freilich, stronger civilian national security bodies -- would make little headway in addressing an issue that is deeply rooted in Israeli society. And in any case, both authors overestimate the impact that this one problem has had on Israeli history. The persistence of the Arab-Israeli conflict and Israel's strategic shortcomings are the result of far more than bureaucratic politics.

OF SABRAS AND SPARTANS

Tyler's narrative of the last 60 years of Israeli history emphasizes the unparalleled influence of the military establishment on war, peace, and politics. Tyler writes with disapproval that "the army and the intelligence services dominate the national budget, define external and internal threats, initiate policies, review their own performance, run a large portion of the economy, control vast tracts of land and airspace, and exert immense influence over communications and news media through censorship." Israeli foreign-policy makers, therefore, tend to see the world through a military prism, consistently passing up opportunities for diplomatic solutions when military options are on the table.

Tyler's story begins in 1955, when David Ben-Gurion, the country's founding father, returned to the helm as prime minister and pushed aside Moshe Sharett, who had briefly replaced him. Whereas Sharett, the founder of Israel's foreign service, believed in engaging the country's Arab neighbors, Ben-Gurion and his military disciples sought to "mobilize the country for continuous war." Needless to say, Ben-Gurion won the debate. He proceeded to escalate the skirmishes along the border with Egypt, paving the way for the Suez crisis of 1956 (known in Israel as the Sinai War). Since then, all Israeli leaders have acted under the spell of militarism, endlessly fighting wars and relying on high-level assassinations to keep Israel's enemies at bay. Tyler criticizes the Arabs' rejection of the Jewish state only in passing, arguing that the real problem in the Arab-Israeli conflict is that Israel's ruling elite has preferred retribution and revenge to reconciliation and peace. By his lights, Israel, not its neighbors, bears responsibility for prolonging the conflict through its quest for regional hegemony.

This argument is hardly new: it has been a mainstay of left-wing Israeli and American criticism of Israeli policies for decades. But Tyler sharpens the critique by stitching together politics, diplomacy, and covert action into a single story. Fortress Israel fills out the history of Israel's wars and peace efforts by shedding new light on events that have been clouded by secrecy and censorship for years. The book shows just how preoccupied Israeli leaders have been with authorizing, supervising, and cleaning up after military and clandestine operations.

Tyler argues that Israel's reluctance to pursue diplomacy has been fueled since the 1960s by an ever-growing flow of American arms and political support. He describes Israel as a duplicitous client state that has never hesitated to put its own interests ahead of its protector's. Again, this is hardly a new assertion. But others who have made similar arguments in the past, such as Andrew Cockburn and Leslie Cockburn, Seymour Hersh, and John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, have emphasized chiefly that Washington's knee-jerk support for Israel has undermined American interests. Tyler, by contrast, argues that the U.S. underwriting of Israel's militarism is first and foremost bad for Israel.

Fortress Israel yearns for an idealized liberal Zionism, the same espoused -- in Tyler's narrative -- by early Israeli leaders such as Sharett, President Chaim Weizmann, and Prime Ministers Levi Eshkol and Golda Meir, who, Tyler insists, sought integration with Israel's neighbors. Yet he makes too much of the liberalism of these figures, all of whom failed to reach peace with the Arabs. In his telling, their vision once held sway but was hijacked by Ben-Gurion and his protégés, including the warriors turned politicians Moshe Dayan, Sharon, and Barak, their younger successor. His criticisms of this second group notwithstanding, Tyler clearly admires that generation of sabras -- the tough, native-born Israelis known for their can-do mentality, their battlefield valor, and their cloak-and-dagger daring.

Still, in Tyler's view, Israel's use of force -- even when it has achieved its goals at limited costs -- has been counter-productive. He argues that the Israeli government should head down the road not taken of diplomacy and negotiations and, if it does not, that the United States should get tough and restrain Israeli aggression. His role model is U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower, who refused to supply Israel with arms throughout his two terms and, after the 1956 war, forced Ben-Gurion to withdraw from Gaza and the Sinai. Tyler takes Eisenhower's successors to task for failing to say no to their Israeli counterparts when asked for more sophisticated weapons, un vetoes, and other kinds of unconditional support. The United States only made matters worse by coming to rely on Israel's bullying as a tool in the Cold War and, later, in the "war on terror."

CIVILIAN DISOBEDIENCE

Unlike Tyler, Freilich is no opponent of Israel's use of force. According to his narrative, which reflects mainstream Israeli attitudes, the Jewish state is surrounded by threatening enemies and must occasionally go to war to escape a strategic bind. And sometimes even moves made in the interest of ending a war can backfire: Freilich echoes a common argument when he writes that Israel's unilateral withdrawal from southern Lebanon in 2000, when Barak was prime minister, was a humiliating failure that strengthened Hezbollah and helped spark the second intifada. In Freilich's opinion, Israel cannot -- and should not -- defend itself only from within its borders.

Zion's Dilemmas is the most detailed analysis to date of the inner workings of Israel's national security establishment. It presents seven case studies: the two Lebanon wars (1982 and 2006); the peace processes with Egypt and the Palestinians; the unilateral withdrawals from Lebanon, in 2000, and Gaza, in 2005; and the failed Lavi fighter jet project, an ambitious attempt to build an indigenous warplane with U.S. funding, which was canceled in 1987.

Freilich's main concern is the built-in weakness of Israel's civilian leaders, who have little formal authority over national security, preside over a dysfunctional cabinet, and, lacking decent staff support, must rely on the military for policy planning. That is not to say that the IDF's high command ignores the authority of its political masters: it opposed the withdrawal from Lebanon, for example, yet nevertheless followed the prime minister's directives. But executing policies inevitably involves the military, and particularly its planning branch, which effectively serves as the state's think tank. What ends up happening, according to Freilich, is that Israeli leaders are given only a narrow range of policy options by military personnel, who do not take a full view of the country's overall needs. After all, one cannot expect men in uniform to recommend defense budget cuts, even when other national priorities might make them necessary.

As a remedy, Freilich proposes strengthening Israel's National Security Council (where he served as deputy national security adviser), a small unit attached to the prime minister's office, and turning it into the equivalent of its U.S. counterpart. Under Netanyahu, the NSC has enjoyed a somewhat bigger role, but it cannot rival the superior influence of the military and intelligence services, whose chiefs demand direct access to the prime minister. (They are, after all, the scapegoats when something goes wrong.) Moreover, all the NSC chiefs to date and many of their senior staffers have come from careers in the IDF or the intelligence community, and so they can hardly be expected to offer an alternative, civilian point of view.

Freilich argues that Israeli leaders need to be presented with a wider range of policy options before deciding on issues of war and peace. Still, he acknowledges that even a better, more organized, and less politicized policymaking process would not always produce better results. In his analysis, Barak's peace overtures at Camp David in 2000 were thoroughly prepared but failed, whereas Prime Minister Menachem Begin's negotiations with Egypt in the late 1970s were poorly prepared but resulted in a successful deal.

GENERAL WILL

The two authors disagree on who is right and who is wrong in the Arab-Israeli conflict. To Freilich, Barak's offers to the Syrians and the Palestinians in 2000 were "dramatic concessions," whereas Tyler describes them as mere tricks to avoid peace and blame the other side. Tyler sees the second intifada as a clear-cut case of Israeli brutality and overreaction; for Freilich, it was a Palestinian terror campaign aimed at destroying the Jewish state.

Still, both Fortress Israel and Zion's Dilemmas manage to come to strikingly similar conclusions about what ails the Israeli national security system. "The primacy of the IDF is the story of bureaucratic politics in Israel," writes Freilich, even if he would never call the high command a "junta," as Tyler does. Both would agree that the military needs broader political oversight and stronger checks and balances from civilian institutions, such as the Foreign Ministry.

Tyler and Freilich are hardly the first to lament Israel's handling of its military. Yet despite the fact that critics across the political spectrum have presented the same diagnosis, there is little push for change among the Israeli public at large. The truth is that most Israelis see nothing wrong with the status quo. The IDF remains the most important and trusted institution in Israeli society, despite demographic changes that are shrinking its recruitment base. (Arabs and ultra-Orthodox Jews, who currently make up a third of Israeli society and are the country's two fastest-growing minorities, enjoy draft exemptions.) Mandatory conscription operates as a rite of passage for young Israelis, and the connections they make in the army serve as the basis for social and professional networking later in life. Those who pursue longer careers in the military often retire in their mid-40s and move on to leadership positions in politics and industry.

In turn, the military uses its considerable popularity, political clout, and bureaucratic strength to protect its budgetary autonomy and to avoid civilian oversight. During crises, moreover, the IDF and its intelligence counterparts are the only national institutions capable of coming up with timely solutions and offering a way out to the political leadership. This bureaucratic reality, coupled with the Israeli public's ever-present sense of external threats, inevitably leads the government to rely on forceful solutions -- the military's specialty -- rather than diplomacy. Israel turns to diplomats only when the officers fail to deliver.

The military's dominance may be an unavoidable reality of Israeli politics, but both Tyler and Freilich overestimate its pernicious effects. For starters, Israel's military leaders, both in and out of service, do not always lobby for the use of force. At several critical moments in Israeli history, the generals have favored restraint. During the first intifada, which began in 1987, the IDF's chief of staff, Dan Shomron, argued that there was "no military solution" to the crisis, effectively preventing a brutal crushing of the Palestinian uprising. Most recently, in the ongoing debate over how to respond to Iran's nuclear ambitions, the security establishment stood up to Netanyahu and Barak, offering an antidote to their hawkishness. Indeed, many of the country's most high-profile moderates have been retired generals and intelligence chiefs, from former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin to the former Mossad chief Meir Dagan, currently the country's most vocal opponent of an Israeli attack on Iran's nuclear facilities.

What is more, the IDF's outsized role can hardly be blamed on its own for the persistence of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Tyler argues that the IDF's aggressiveness and skepticism about the peace process have undermined negotiations with the Palestinians over the last two decades. This holds true to an extent, but it has not been the main obstacle to a political solution. The absence of peace is more aptly explained as a result of entrenched religious, ideological, and territorial disputes, made worse by turbulent domestic politics on both sides.

The military's influence over Israeli politics and society is unlikely to wither away in the foreseeable future. Governments on both the right and the left need the IDF's prestige to legitimate their policies, all the more so during polarized national debates. The growing size and political clout of the draft-exempt minorities -- Israeli Arabs and ultra-Orthodox Jews -- have only prompted the government to make a stronger push to raise the prestige of combat service. Meanwhile, a growing number of Israelis who identify as "national religious," many of whom hail from the settlements, are opting for careers in the military, seeing them as a path to power and influence.

No bureaucratic or constitutional reform can alter this reality. And contrary to what Tyler might hope, neither would an American cold shoulder, which would only entrench Israeli hawks -- as Eisenhower's distant approach to Israel did to the hard-liners of Ben-Gurion's generation. The best way for Washington to moderate Israeli policies is to engage Israel's military and intelligence leaders and leverage them as an effective peace lobby. The Obama administration has essentially followed that script to prevent an Israeli strike on Iran, although it has proved insufficient in promoting an Israeli-Palestinian agreement. No matter what some may wish, Israel's generals are not going to retreat to their bunkers anytime soon.