The headlines in Israel called it “the revolt of the generals.” Conservative commentators warned of a “military coup.” In the space of a single day, June 16, no fewer than four former heads of the Israel Defense Forces — there are six currently alive — declared war on the era of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
The attacks came in varied shapes and tones. Not all were openly aimed at Netanyahu personally, though a few were spectacularly personal. One ex-general, Ehud Barak, a former defense minister and former prime minister, accused Netanyahu during a keynote address to the prestigious Herzliya Conference of fostering “incipient fascism” through anti-democratic legislation, and of leading Israel toward possible “apartheid” by avoiding steps toward a separate Palestinian state. Barak called on the public to “bring down” the government, by taking to the streets if necessary.
Earlier that day, Moshe Yaalon, defense minister until just a month ago, claimed from the same podium that Israel’s national leadership had “ceased to function.” He insisted Israel faces no existential threats today — Barak would make the same point that evening, and former chief of staff Benny Gantz in a speech the next day — but that the present government was clinging to power by tactics of “scare-and-rule” and dividing Israelis, pitting Jews against Arabs and right against left. Yaalon announced plans to run for prime minister himself.
Two others, the IDF’s most recently retired chiefs of staff, Benny Gantz and Gabi Ashkenazi, refrained from attacking the prime minister directly. Rather, the two announced that they were forming a new “cultural movement,” together with a prominent rabbi and former education minister, to transform the “values” of Israeli society. Their aim, the rabbi said, is to heal Israel’s numerous “divisions” and to replace “fear” with “hope” as Israel’s lodestar.
Nothing personal — except that divisiveness and fear-mongering are the two most common charges leveled against Netanyahu by critics.
Tensions between Israel’s security establishment and the Netanyahu government have been rising steadily for at least five years. Numerous senior security figures, both active-duty and retired, have voiced policy assessments blatantly at odds with the prime minister’s positions, from Iran and the Palestinians to relations with Washington. Only a handful have made the criticisms personal against Netanyahu.
What happened on June 16, however, takes the tensions to an entirely new level. Not only because of the operatic tone of Barak’s and Yaalon’s broadsides. Not only because they are four of the six living ex-IDF chiefs of staff. What’s most startling is their collective relationship with Netanyahu. Barak and Yaalon served successively as defense minister, effectively the government’s second-in-command, from the day Netanyahu took office in 2009 until Yaalon was forced out May 18. Ashkenazi and Gantz served successively as IDF chief of staff, in charge of defending Israel from its enemies, from 2007 until a year ago.
What that means, in effect, is that Israel’s top military leadership for almost the entirety of Netanyahu’s current tenure has come out simultaneously against him — not over specific policies but over the character of his leadership. No one in Israel is in a better position to make that judgment.
Does all this suggest a danger of a military coup, as some rightists suggest? Decidedly not. These generals are all retired. They no longer have command authority over troops. They’re speaking as private citizens.
The reason their views are taken seriously — and they’re taken very seriously — is twofold. First, Israel is still a nation at war, and the military is the one institution that still wins near-universal public respect. Second, Netanyahu stakes his claim to leadership largely on his reputation as a security expert who knows how to keep Israelis safe. The men who executed Netanyahu’s security policies now say he doesn’t. Speaking from their combined military expertise — arguably more substantial than that of any four individuals in Israel — they believe his policies make Israel less safe, not more so.
The other logical question is whether their revolt poses a political threat to Netanyahu. Here again, the answer is: probably not. Elections aren’t due until the end of 2019 unless the government falls or the prime minister decides to call an early ballot. Neither seems likely. Netanyahu’s seat is safe for now.
Nor is it clear that the ex-generals could form a meaningful political force now or later. Barak and Yaalon share their critique of the prime minister’s leadership and character, but their prescriptions couldn’t be more at odds. Barak believes Israel must take steps, unilaterally if necessary, to move toward a two-state Israeli-Palestinian arrangement. Yaalon, a Likudnik, believes a Palestinian state would threaten Israel and must be resisted.
Yaalon’s no-Palestinian-state view isn’t shared by any of the other 17 living ex-heads of Israel’s military and intelligence services. He’s alone. That essentially rules out any alliance between Yaalon and his ex-colleagues.
Nor does Yaalon have a future within the Likud after his attack on Netanyahu. Relations with the party were troubled already. He’d aroused too many suspicions on the right, routinely backing the army command when it angered the right by dismantling illegal settlement outposts, arresting a soldier who’d killed an immobilized terrorist or defending an outspoken general.
Now he has few options. He can try to join one of the existing center-right parties, but none of their current leaders — Moshe Kahlon, Yair Lapid, Avigdor Lieberman — seems eager to step aside. Or, as most predict, he could try to start his own party. But he utterly lacks the necessary charisma and political skills. More likely he’s just signed his political death warrant.
Gantz is barred from entering politics until he completes his mandatory three-year post-army cooling off period, two years from now. Ashkenazi and Barak became bitter enemies when they served together as chief of staff and defense minister, and the legal fallout from their mutual backstabbing left Ashkenazi with a tainted reputation.
As for Barak, at 74 he might dream of a political comeback, but too many Israelis recall his stint as prime minister, from 1999 to 2001, as one of the shortest and least successful terms in Israeli history. It’s remembered mostly for the failed Camp David summit and the outbreak of the murderous Second Intifada. Besides, he can’t return to his old base in the Labor Party. His former colleagues haven’t forgiven him for staying on as Netanyahu’s defense minister in 2011 when the rest of the party bolted the coalition. His decision rescued Netanyahu and shattered the party.
If there’s to be any lasting impact from the generals’ revolt, it probably won’t be in elevating the four ex-generals, but in further tarnishing the already faltering stature of Labor Party chief Isaac Herzog. His appearance at Herzliya, just hours before Yaalon’s, was a forgettable performance in which he tweaked Netanyahu and his allies as “Spongebob,” “Batman” and “Popeye.” It probably seemed clever when he wrote it, but by the time Yaalon and Barak were done that night, Herzog’s performance seemed hopelessly lightweight by comparison. Combine that with the fact that he’s actively trying to join the Netanyahu government that the security establishment labels fear-mongering, incipient-fascist and worse, and it’s hard to see how he can continue. If the generals showed anything, it’s that Israel badly needs an opposition leader who knows how to oppose.
Contact J.J. Goldberg at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @JJ_Goldberg
Jonathan Jeremy “J.J.” Goldberg is editor-at-large of the Forward, where he served as editor in chief for seven years (2000-2007).