How the Israel Defense Forces Got Dragged Into Israel’s Culture Wars
By Chuck Freilich/World Politics Review
The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) have long enjoyed a unique role in Israeli life, unlike that in any other liberal democracy. The IDF is the most influential force in the national security decision-making process, the one “neutral” player that Israel’s fractious politicians are usually willing to heed. The IDF has also contributed significantly to the development of Israeli society and its national identity, helping forge Israel’s disparate immigrant communities into a still discordant, but fundamentally united whole.
As Israel enters its 70th year, public trust in the IDF remains remarkably high, to the point that it has been referred to as Israel’s “civil religion.” In 2014, a remarkable 88 percent of Israeli Jews expressed strong trust in the IDF in one poll, far higher than any other public institution.
This support has not prevented the IDF from becoming an important locus of Israel’s domestic culture wars in recent years, with the contending forces in Israeli society—right, left, religious and secular—seeking to make use of its role and prestige to promote their respective agendas. This was evident most recently in the conviction for manslaughter earlier this month of an Israeli soldier, Elor Azaria, for fatally shooting a disarmed Palestinian assailant after he had been captured in the West Bank city of Hebron. The Palestinian, Abdel Fattah al-Sharif, had, along with a second attacker, stabbed and wounded another Israeli soldier at a checkpoint.
Azaria’s trial led to a firestorm of emotion in Israel and became a symbol of the broader divide within Israel over the West Bank. For the right, this was a case of the left abandoning an Israeli soldier who had been sent to serve in undoubtedly difficult circumstances. For the left, the case symbolized all that is wrong with the control of the West Bank. The issue was not, however, simply a left-right one. Indeed, following his conviction, but prior to sentencing, some 70 percent of the Israeli public, in a country in which the overwhelming majority serve in the IDF, favored pardoning him or granting a reduced sentence.
The open support for pardoning Azaria shown by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other senior political figures opened a fissure with the IDF. For the IDF, which has long viewed itself as the embodiment of Israel’s secular and democratic values, the issue was one of operational discipline and of showing who is actually in command, as well as of its fundamental sense of morality. An IDF in which individual soldiers take matters into their own hands might devolve into an undisciplined and immoral militia.
The divisions exposed by the trial point to the deeper disagreements among Israelis that revolve around the IDF. The left has criticized the IDF’s rules of engagement and conduct in various operations, expressed alarm at the rising influence of religious Israelis in the military, and demanded equal rights for female and LGBT conscripts. The right is concerned over an ostensible lack of ideological compass; an overwillingness to expose IDF soldiers to risks and even death in order to appease international opinion and law, for example, by tying the hands of soldiers on patrol in the West Bank; and more. The IDF’s chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Gadi Eizenkot, is reportedly so concerned about the relations between it and Israeli society that he has chosen to make it a personal priority.
Along with Israel’s ongoing control of the West Bank, which entails duties that many IDF soldiers do not wish to be engaged in, all this has affected the IDF’s image. While the IDF enjoyed almost unquestioning public trust in the past, it has increasingly become a focus of anxiety and doubt. The Israeli public demands far greater transparency from it today, as it does from all state institutions. Cases of financial impropriety and waste, sexual harassment, questionable professional judgment, and training and operational accidents have even led to legal prosecution of soldiers and officers, further harming the IDF’s reputation.
Differences between the IDF and Israel’s political leadership, to which it remains unalterably subordinate, have also come to light on a number of important and polarizing issues that predate Azaria’s trial, from Iran’s nuclear program to ongoing tensions over exemptions from military service for Israel’s growing Haredi or ultra-orthodox Jewish population. There is also a general sense of concern over what appears to be a lack of a clear national strategy regarding the peace process and the future of the West Bank.
Eizenkot’s predecessor as chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz, and the heads of Israel’s intelligence agencies are reported to have strongly opposed and, in effect, blocked Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s intention to conduct a military strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities in the early 2010s. They were also deeply concerned that Netanyahu’s vociferous public opposition to the Iran deal in 2015 would harm relations with the U.S., on which Israel, and especially the IDF, are so dependent. In contrast with Netanyahu, the IDF is known to consider the outcome of the Iran deal to be positive at this point, despite its shortcomings, and to oppose an attempt to scrap it.
Haredi exemptions from military service are a mixed issue for the IDF. On the one hand, the military is deeply concerned that the exemptions will have a deleterious effect on the sense of fairness and consequent motivation to serve of secular conscripts, who remain the backbone of the IDF. It also faces a growing shortage of high-quality conscripts, due both to populist decisions by the political leadership to shorten the length of compulsory service for men and the growing need for better-educated and technologically savvy soldiers able to operate modern weapons systems. Conversely, the IDF does not wish to draft a large population of conscripts who are both deeply opposed to military service and often lacking in the basic educational skills and temperamental characteristics needed. Nor does the IDF want to be drawn into the heated political divisions the Haredi issue elicits, further exacerbated by repeated changes in legislation governing their military service in recent years
The IDF’s stature has been dented by the growing differences with the political leadership and various segments of Israeli society, but it is still strong. Indeed, the IDF continues to be the ultimate collective in Israel, in which virtually all non-Haredi Jewish Israelis, men and women, serve. To criticize the IDF is not like criticizing the military in any other country; it is like criticizing a family member, which is why the IDF remains a source of singular public identification and support.
Chuck Freilich, a former deputy national security adviser in Israel, is a senior fellow at Harvard’s Belfer Center. He is the author of “Zion’s Dilemmas: How Israel Makes National Security Policy” (Cornell, 2016) and the forthcoming “Israeli National Security: A New Strategy for an Era of Change” (Oxford, 2017).