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  • Israel’s Security Networks: A Theoretical and Comparative Perspective by Gabriel Sheffer, Oren Barak
  • Stuart A. Cohen (bio)
Israel’s Security Networks: A Theoretical and Comparative Perspective, by Gabriel Sheffer and Oren Barak. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2013. 172pages. $90.

Israel has long been portrayed as a state in which the boundaries between the civilian and military spheres of public life are (in the jargon of political scientists) particularly “porous.” Although recent decades have witnessed a steady decline in the percentage of citizens drafted into military service, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) continues to wield substantial political and economic clout, and to command enormous public support. Given that atmosphere, it is hardly surprising that the Israeli government recently cancelled its own decision to downsize the defense budget in order to invest greater resources in social welfare projects. As soon as the chief of staff warned — albeit politely — that he could not be held responsible for the inevitable damage to the country’s security, the treasury found that it did, after all, possess a budget surplus and that the defense cuts could be shelved.

In Israel’s Security Networks, professors Gabriel Sheffer and Oren Barak, both of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, argue that such incidents are only the tip of an enormous iceberg. In addition to government, they claim, numerous other vital areas of Israeli society — the economy, public administration, and even academe — have been penetrated and are thus controlled by groups of serving and retired personnel from the security services and their civilian collaborators. These individuals do not form a quasi-conspiratorial grouping. Neither do they constitute a single party, nor even a unified lobby. Rather, they are portrayed as a web of separate and sometimes competing connections, whose actions, although within the bounds of the law, ultimately undermine Israel’s (unwritten) constitution. According to Sheffer and Barak, it is thanks to the security networks that Israeli democracy is “effective” rather than “real.” Policies, least of all defense and foreign policies, are not shaped in response to popular will. They are formulated in conclaves in which the influence of the “security networks” reigns supreme.

At the heart of the book lies a thick depiction of how these networks foster and sustain a cultural atmosphere in which “security” dominates public Israeli discourse and becomes the prism through which all other values and interests are evaluated. To this is added a yet more insidious phenomenon. Since persons who have attained senior rank in one of the security services (the IDF, the General Security Service, or the Mossad) can, ipso facto, claim [End Page 326] to be authorities in their field, members of the networks have virtually determined how “security” is defined. This, claim the authors in the book’s concluding chapter, explains why Israel’s security networks are more ubiquitous than is the case in the United States and the United Kingdom, where the security discourse is more open-ended. Israel’s networks also exercise a far greater influence over the shaping of policy than do their counterparts in South Africa, South Korea, Taiwan, and Singapore — all of which likewise confront existential security threats.

Even thus baldly summarized, this is a challenging thesis, and the book certainly deserves a wide readership. Nevertheless, it is unlikely to be the last word on the subject. Israeli society is notoriously dynamic, and there are already signs that even the IDF has to adjust itself to the claims of what Peter Haas termed alternative “epistemic communities” — each with an independent understanding of what “security,” whether collective or individual, entails. One is the legal profession, which has already compelled the IDF to adopt (or at least pay lip service) to new operational procedures; another consists of groups of parents of servicemen and women, who have likewise placed new limits on the IDF’s autonomy.

The real difficulty, of course, is to assess the possible impact of such developments. Do they portend a fundamental shift in the direction of the flow of civil-military interactions in Israel, and hence the flowering of a more “civil” society? Or are the present currents, as portrayed in Israel’s Security Networks, so powerful that the new developments...