TEL AVIV — Although the signs were visible well before Israel’s March 28 elections, Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz refused to believe that his term at the helm of Israel’s most sensitive ministry was actually drawing to a close. “I don’t believe he [Prime Minister Ehud Olmert] would give up on me,” Mofaz told the Forward shortly before Election Day. “He knows that as long as I’m here, things will go smoothly.”
Whatever Olmert’s initial intent — and there were signs that Mofaz was on the outs regardless — the election outcome sealed Mofaz’s fate. Olmert’s Kadima party won only 29 seats in the 120-member Knesset, forcing Olmert to assemble a multiparty coalition within which Kadima holds a minority of parliamentary seats. That made Olmert acutely vulnerable to the demands of the Labor Party, the second-largest party and Olmert’s most important coalition partner.
Labor had its eye on the Finance Ministry, the key to its left-leaning social platform, but Olmert was reluctant to give it up. Instead, Labor leader Amir Peretz will become Israel’s next defense minister — one of seven ministries that the tenacious union boss managed to negotiate for his 19-seat Knesset caucus. Mofaz will have to settle for something less prestigious, apparently the Trade and Industry Ministry that Olmert once held.
The naming of Peretz to Israel’s most sensitive job has touched off a heated debate on the nation’s talk shows and op-ed pages. Unlike Mofaz and most of his predecessors, Peretz does not have a military background. He was not a senior officer, not even a combat soldier; he did his compulsory service in an ordnance unit, ending with the rank of sergeant before being released with a serious injury. In 18 years of Knesset service, he has never held a seat on the powerful Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee or in the Cabinet.
For some, the nomination augurs a long-overdue civilianization of Israel’s political culture. Others contend that with Israel still at war, a raw outsider like Peretz is not qualified to make crucial decisions.
Some top active-duty officers have entered the fray, intimating to journalists (on condition of anonymity, of course) that the Labor leader’s lack of experience in military decision-making — and Olmert’s, for that matter — poses a danger to Israel’s security.
The leaked opinions have touched off a debate of their own. Mofaz vehemently denies having anything to with them, and fingers are being pointed at Dan Halutz, the formidable chief of staff. Halutz is widely believed to have post-retirement political ambitions of his own. Opponents fear he would wield too much power under an inexperienced civilian boss like Peretz.
To some minds, the affair highlights the lackluster caliber of Israel’s incoming leadership. “This is what became of the Big Bang in Israeli politics,” a senior government source sardonically told the Forward, recalling predictions that the emergence of a new party would bring forth a new crop of bold leaders. “We have replaced Sharon, Mofaz and [former finance minister Benjamin] Netanyahu with Olmert, Peretz and [Olmert ally and likely new Finance Minister Abraham] Hirshson.”
Peretz probably would have a hard time contending with the Jewish state’s most powerful organization. Traditionally, defense ministers are known for micro-managing daily military affairs, something Peretz hardly could do. But the Peretz appointment also signifies an unexpected reversal of political fortunes for Israel’s ex-generals. The new Knesset, sworn in on the same day that a suicide bomber killed nine people in Tel Aviv, has no fewer than 12 former generals and senior Shin Bet security service commanders, up from nine in the outgoing house. And yet, none of them is slated to hold any of the top decision-making posts overseeing the nation’s borders or military operations.
Since the mid-1960s, when the first wave of commanders from the 1948 War of Independence began entering politics, the military has been a prime breeding ground for future leaders. Retiring generals have been courted by all sides, each party hoping to bask in the heroes’ reflected glory. Traditionally, most have joined the Labor Party and its predecessors.
The lopsided distribution is usually attributed to the fact that Labor was the ruling party during Israel’s first 29 years, and drew its leaders from a social elite that also spawned the early military brass. Figures like Yitzhak Rabin, ex-chief of staff Moshe Dayan and Yigal Allon, perhaps the most revered commander in the 1948 war, all grew up in agricultural cooperatives formed by the same socialist movement that spawned the Labor Party.
After 1977, when Menachem Begin led the Likud to power, some former generals began joining the right-wing party. The best known were Ezer Weizman, a former air force chief who had grown up in a strongly identified Likud family, and Ariel Sharon, the maverick war hero who openly aimed to shake up the nation’s politics.
Still, while the Likud dominated Israeli politics for most of the next quarter-century, a steady stream of ex-generals — from ex-chiefs of staff like Haim Bar-Lev, Mordechai Gur and Ehud Barak to second-tier figures such as Binyamin Ben-Eliezer and Matan Vilnai — continued joining Labor.
Frustrated Likudniks blamed a Labor old-boy network within the army brass that promoted fellow Laborites to top commands. Labor mouthpieces argued that veteran soldiers tended to have a pragmatic outlook that was more compatible with what Labor considered its nonideological approach to the territories. In fact, commanders were actually flowing into both parties — mostly to their centrist, pragmatic wings, whose political positions were often barely distinguishable from one another.
Following the rift in the Likud, caused by Sharon’s Gaza disengagement plan, most of the party’s pragmatist wing — including all its senior security figures — left with Sharon to join Kadima. In the current Knesset, consequently, nearly all the ex-generals and ex-Shin Bet chiefs are either Kadima or Labor members. They include veterans, such as Mofaz and Vilnai, as well as newcomers recruited by the two parties’ new leaders, notably two ex-Shin Bet chiefs, Avi Dichter in Kadima and Ami Ayalon in Labor.
By contrast, the Likud, for all its efforts to seize the high ground on security issues, has no major security figures in its Knesset caucus.
In a curious twist, however, the ex-generals have mostly been left behind in the coalition horse-trading, apparently due to a series of coincidences. Several spoiled their bargaining positions early on: Mofaz hesitated for a crucial week before joining Kadima, even launching a brief bid for the Likud leadership, and so entered the new party with his loyalty under a cloud. Labor’s generals mostly did poorly in the party primaries that determined Knesset ranking, edged out by a crop of younger career politicians who now demand the choice ministries. Both Dichter and Ayalon, the freshest faces in the security crowd, were considered too raw to claim the top slots in their first political outings. In the end, Olmert and Peretz, lifelong politicians with little sense of obligation to the brass, chose to hand out their best plums to longtime political allies instead of to generals.
It is too early to tell whether all this signifies a real change of fortunes for Israel’s ex-generals. Olmert was scarred by the coalition-making process and by the huge Cabinet it produced, with 27 ministers at last count. Peretz still will have to contend with the complications of his new job. Old ways die hard.
But as things now appear, these strange elections may have produced an even stranger outcome for Israeli politics: Rank civilians will run the military, while former generals will have to learn to become “mere” lawmakers.