By SETH J. FRANTZMAN
On May 10 Zvi Barel wrote a column in the Israeli daily Haaretz about “the first Jewish military coup.” He asserted: “When the values promoted by the Netanyahu government are seen by the army as a threat to Israel’s existence, what will its commanders do?” He noted that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu “hears murmurs that indicate that those responsible for the country’s defense are fed up with the circus he is running. They view themselves as having responsibility for what happens to the country if they don’t stop Netanyahu and his associates in time.” The author wondered how long the “people” would stand by the army.
The author went on to paint a picture, much like the one we have heard about from secular elites in Turkey and from the opposition in Venezuela, of an army beholden to defend the values of the state from capricious politicians. “When the government adopts and cultivates values that the army leadership sees as a threat to the country’s existence…[the army] will have to decide what constitutes the ultimate threat to the security and existence of the country: Is it thousands of missiles and Palestinian knife attackers or is it a government that is shaping the public into a monster threatening to devour Israeli democracy’s fundamental values.” The author seems to take heart in such a prospect, “The political leadership that is currently pushing the army into a position in which it has to defend itself and its values.”
There is a long history of talk and even support for a coup in Israel. In 1998 Israeli academic Uri Ben-Eliezer wrote an article comparing the chance for a coup in Israel with the French history in Algeria. He called the phenomenon “praetorianism”, the concept of an elite praetorian guard taking control of the state to force a major change in policy that threatens the state. The obvious change here would be the need to withdraw from the West Bank in the face of political impasse. Many in the traditionally secular Israeli military, whose top brass is to some extent still drawn from and influenced by its kibbutz Labor Zionist origins, view the settler movement of the West Bank as an existential demographic threat forcing Israel into a one state solution.
Ami Gluska’s book on the Israeli military on the eve of the 1967 war argued that “war-thirsty generals” were on the verge of a military coup against the technocrat Levi Eshkol before he gave them the reins. In 2013 Amir Oren wrote about a “putsch” in the Israeli army in which then Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi had outmaneuvered Defense Minister Ehud Barak. Yoel Marcus called this a “putsch”. Oren looked back to the 1970s when Yitzhak Rabin had to resign because of an illegal account at a foreign bank, one revealed apparently due to an air force snitch, as evidence of problematic relations between politicians and the army. The article worried about a future attempt to take “private control of the army.”
It’s obvious that this cultural trope exists and it’s particularly lively in the imaginations of the “left” in Israel. A 2005 book called Code Blue by Zvika Amit imagined a “right wing” military coup in the future. But many in Israel think a coup is unthinkable.
Uri Avnery, the veteran journalist and iconoclast, claims this is because the army already “has a state.” He quotes a joke about commanders assembling to take over the government 0600 hours, and realizing that they already run the country anyway. With such a bloated and massive draftee army, Avnery notes that “The country is swimming with ex-generals and ex-colonels who hold central positions in politics, public administration, government-owned corporations and services etc.” He compares Israel to the Prussian Reich of the Kaiser. “Perhaps it was not an accident that the founder of Zionism, Theodor Herzl, was an ardent admirer of the Kaiser’s Reich.” This is a comparison we have heard before, the 1967 war generals were called the “Prussians”. He claims Israel has similarity with Pakistan and notes that 40% of Israelis don’t serve in the army, creating two classes, a military “melting-pot” class and the others.
Like many on the left, his narrative is of an army that has become untethered to its proper roots. “This is not the same army I swore allegiance to on the day it was founded. At the time, many officers were Kibbutz members, brought up in the spirit of socialism and solidarity. After 57 years of occupation, the army has become brutalized, many officers are settlers, many wear nationalist-religious knitted kippahs.”
Very few people come out openly and support a military coup. One blog at Times of Israel did claim “Israel needs a military coup.” However after the comments by IDF General Yair Golan claiming that there Israel has extremist tendencies in society similar to 1930s Germany, and the resulting condemnations, there were claims that the army was being suppressed by politicians. Those on the “left”, who have traditionally felt closest to the army, were angry that the right was silencing dissent. Then Moshe ‘Bogie’ Ya’alon, the Defense Minister was pushed out by Netanyahu and resigned from the Knesset. Suddenly he became a hero of integrity, the “old” Israel, yet another nail in the coffin, in the “left” view. This was another “putsch”.
It was then that comments on social media began to discuss the possibility of a coup when it became clear the Avigdor Lieberman was the choice for defense minister. Similar outrage had been expressed year ago when Lieberman was appointed foreign minister. The scorn for Lieberman is not just because he is right wing. His right wing politics are no more than many on the right in Israel. On religious issues he is actually in theory more in line with the supposedly secular left. But he is perceived as a dangerous outsider because he is a Russian-speaking immigrant from Moldova. He is derided as a “former bouncer” because Israel is a case based class-based society. He is not the “right sort”. He is what they used to call “rif raf” in Israeli parlance. This is the same rhetoric that helped gain Menachem Begin the election in 1981 when Dudu Topaz accused Likud voters of being “chachachikim” and not the military “heroes” of Labor.
A coup could preserve the old 1950s Israel, just as secular deep-state coups in Turkey had been used to keep the religious “right wing” threat at bay. The left wing blog Mondoweiss seemed to cheer on the possibility. One left wing blogger on Facebook replied “hell yes” to suggestion of the upcoming coup. Ronen Bergman in the New York Times claimed that “In some conversations I’ve had recently with high-ranking officers about Mr. Lieberman’s appointment as defense minister, the possibility of a military coup has been raised.”
What coup was happening though? Middle East Eye claimed it was actually a “coup” against the military’s role. Netanyahu was playing “king Bibi” again and neutering the military. He is “against the generals.” The big story is the worshipping of Ya’alon after his resignation. There is a feeling that this is the “end” of the good Israel. “It is the end of the assertion of Israel maintaining a professional army. The integrity of Yaalon and Golan were so evident and reliable.”
This is part of a rose-colored love for the military abroad and in Israel as the most trusted institution. No matter that Ya’alon opposed the disengagement from Gaza, he is now the moral one. Politics is, of course, immoral.
But the real story is that in the end Israel’s politics will always be between those who see themselves rooted in the 1950s military tradition of a caste of mostly Ashkenazi, secular men who ran the army, and the “others”. The others are suspicious and cannot be trusted. This leads to a weird embrace of a “coup” on the left. But as in other countries, coups don’t help anyone.