- Generals in the Cabinet Room: How the Military Shapes Israeli Policy
Yoram Peri is shocked, shocked! to find that politics is going on in the higher ranks of the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF). A journalist-turned-scholar and onetime political advisor to the late Yitzhak Rabin, Peri argues that the chief of the general staff (CGS) of the IDF and senior officers within the general staff exert far more influence on cabinet-level decision making than is right or proper, judged by the hallowed "instrumental" theory of political-military relations. Scholars like Samuel Huntington and Morris Janowitz have long argued that a nation's military leadership should exemplify "professionalism" and keep its distance from the realm of policy formulation. Peri documents the extraordinary degree to which the IDF general staff deviates from this theory, aggressively positioning its own viewpoint and undercutting (when not backstabbing) its supposed civilian masters in the cabinet. The story has some interesting twists, not least the fact that a staggering number of these ostensibly civilian prime ministers and cabinet officials are themselves retired generals—of the sixteen chiefs of staff in the IDF's short history, no fewer than thirteen have entered politics after retirement, a percentage surely unmatched anywhere else in the democratic West. (In his concluding chapter Peri recommends changing the current law under which a retiring IDF officer need wait only one hundred days before being allowed to run for the Knesset and six months before accepting a cabinet post.)
Like all political scientists Peri seeks to generalize his findings: "Those who wish to understand the new relationship between war and statesmanship, and between generals and politicians, and those who want to examine in-depth the political influence armed forces have in the current era, should turn to the Holy Land." Sadly, no. This is a wholly unique case study—from its infancy scholars have speculated whether Israel is a militarized society or simply has a "civilianized" military. In any event, the author makes his case for undue military influence on the Israeli political leadership in brisk fashion from the perspective of the last two decades—the First Intifada through the Oslo Accords and into the period of the Second Intifada, going to press shortly before the most recent war in Lebanon. Some causes are well-known, such as the historic weakness of the Ministry of Defense—as often as not a portfolio assumed by the Prime Minister, and when held by others the position suffers from inadequate staff resources by comparison with the IDF general staff and from the direct access to the Prime Minister enjoyed by the CGS. Other interesting facts emerge from Peri's narrative. Despite the catastrophic failure of the IDF's Military Intelligence Directorate (MID) before the Yom Kippur War, its role in subsequent decades actually seems to have been strengthened. Agranat Commission reforms intended to give Israel a more balanced threat assessment capability were not implemented; the MID remains the default source of national intelligence estimates, overshadowing the sparse analytical resources of the Mossad, the Israeli Security Agency (aka the Shin Bet), and the ministries of Defense [End Page 1321] and Foreign Affairs. This near-monopoly on intelligence is the main pillar of the Chief of Staff's great authority.
Peri's focus on the last twenty years shortchanges the reader in terms of historical context, but he does touch briefly on a couple of earlier episodes in which the CGS's attempts to derail the cabinet's foreign policy initiatives became matters of public controversy. Both Moshe Dayan in the 1950s and Mordechai Gur in the 1970s fiercely opposed the withdrawal of Israeli troops from the Sinai, and in Gur's case he was persuaded by faulty intelligence assessments that Egypt was planning to attack Israel in 1978. Gur recanted his opposition only when the MID privately informed him that they had been wrong—an analytical blunder of the first order, coming as it did on...