Netanyahu Against the Generals

By Bret Stephens

Wall Street Journal

May 23, 2016

In 2012 a former New York Times reporter named Patrick Tyler published an invidious book called “Fortress Israel,” the point of which was that the Jewish state is a modern-day Sparta whose “sabra military elite” is addicted to war.

“Six decades after its founding,” Mr. Tyler wrote, Israel “remains in thrall to an original martial impulse, the depth of which has given rise to succeeding generations of leaders who are stunted in their capacity to wield or sustain diplomacy as a rival to military strategy.” Worse, these leaders do this “reflexively and instinctively, in order to perpetuate a system of governance where national policy is dominated by the military.”

Israel’s reflexive militarists are at it again, though probably not as Mr. Tyler imagined. Last week, Moshe Ya’alon, a former army chief of staff and a member of the ruling Likud party, resigned as defense minister following ructions regarding the appropriate role of the military in political life. In his place, the prime minister intends to appoint Avigdor Lieberman, a right-wing political brawler whose military career never went higher than corporal rank.

The spat between the prime minister and Mr. Ya’alon began in late March, after an Israeli soldier named Elor Azariah shot and killed a Palestinian man who was lying wounded and motionless on the ground after trying to stab another soldier. Sgt. Azariah is now standing trial for manslaughter and faces up to 20 years in prison. Video of the killing suggests the wounded Palestinian was no threat to the soldiers when the sergeant put a bullet in his head.

The killing has been emphatically—and rightly—condemned by Israel’s military brass. But Israelis also have little sympathy for Palestinians trying to stick knives into their sons and daughters, and Messrs. Netanyahu and Lieberman have offered expressions of support for Sgt. Azariah and his family, to the applause of the Israeli right and the infuriation of senior generals. As often as not in Israel, military leaders and security officials are to the left of the public and their civilian leadership.

If that were the end of the story, you might have a morality tale about Mr. Netanyahu’s political instincts. Or you might have a story about the high ethical standards to which Israel holds itself. What you don’t have is anything resembling a mindlessly belligerent “sabra military elite” that wants to kill helpless (though not innocent) Palestinians to protect its own.

But that isn’t the end of the story. At a ceremony marking Holocaust Remembrance Day earlier this month, Yair Golan, Israel’s deputy chief of staff, compared trends in Israeli society to Germany in the 1930s. When Mr. Netanyahu rebuked him—correctly—for defaming Israel and cheapening the memory of the Holocaust, Mr. Ya’alon leapt to the general’s defense and told officers that they should feel free to speak their minds in public. Hence his ouster.

At stake here is no longer the small question about Sgt. Azariah, where the military establishment is in the right. It’s the greater question of civilian-military relations, where Israel’s military leaders are dead wrong. A security establishment that feels no compunction about publicly telling off its civilian masters is on the road to becoming a law unto itself—the Sparta of Mr. Tyler’s imagination, albeit in the service of leftist goals.

In an op-ed in Sunday’s New York Times, Israeli writer Ronen Bergman paints the military in flattering colors, insisting that Israel’s “defense agencies are motivated only by national interest, rather than ideology, religion or electoral considerations.” He went on to suggest that talk of a coup was in the air, though “it remains unlikely.”

The idea of a military coup in today’s Israel is preposterous. But it says something about the arrogance of Mr. Bergman and his military sources that they should think of themselves as impartial guardians of the national interest—as they see it—or that they should so brazenly dismiss the ideological, religious or electoral considerations that are the stuff of democracy. It was Israel’s security establishment, led by talented former officers such as Yitzhak Rabin and Ehud Barak,that led Israelis down the bloody cul-de-sac formerly called the peace process. If their views are no longer regarded as sacrosanct, it’s a sign of Israel’s political maturity, not decline.

There’s a larger point here, relevant not only to Israel, about the danger those who believe themselves to be virtuous pose to those who merely wish to be free. In the Middle East, the virtuous are often the sheikhs and ayatollahs, exhorting the faithful to murder for the sake of God. In the West, the virtuous are secular elites imposing what Thomas Sowell once called “the vision of the anointed” on the benighted masses.

Mr. Lieberman is nobody’s idea of an ideal defense minister. And both he and his boss are wrong when it comes to the shameful case of Sgt. Azariah. But those who believe that Israel must remain a democracy have no choice but to take Mr. Netanyahu’s side.