The IDF and the Israeli Spirit

By Moshe Yaalon

The former Chief-of-Staff addresses the greatest threat facing the Jewish state.

The greatest difficulty here is internal. Israel’s political polarization, and the lack of a national consensus with regard to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, are vulnerabilities that have been well exploited by our enemies. Even when Yasser Arafat began his terror war in September 2000, we argued—and there are those who continue to argue to this day—over whether this war was a premeditated assault or a spontaneous, authentic grassroots uprising. This debate took place even within the Israeli cabinet, which could not decide whether to see Arafat as an enemy or a peace partner. The issue was resolved only after the Passover Eve attack on the Park Hotel in Netanya in March 2002, following a year and a half of terrorist bombings. If recent books on the subject—some of which accuse the IDF of escalating this war—are any indicator, the debate has still not been fully resolved. This debate is indicative of a profound confusion, not only with regard to this particular war, but with regard to the Zionist narrative itself.
We may best view Arafat’s decision to go to war as the third Palestinian refusal of a two-state solution. The first refusal was to reject the Peel Commission’s recommendations in 1937, the second was to dismiss the United Nations partition plan in 1947, and the third was to rebuff the offer made by Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak at Camp David in 2000. Each partition proposal accepted by the Jewish leadership has led to a wave of Palestinian violence. This continual state of refusal suggests a profound unwillingness on the part of the Palestinians to accept any territorial compromise, and, more deeply, to accept Israel’s right to exist as an independent Jewish state.
This view of things exposes a deep asymmetry, and in a rather harsh light. The overwhelming majority of Jewish leaders since the dawn of Zionism have been amenable to territorial compromise and the partition of the land; no Palestinian leadership has ever proven willing to accept the same. And the rise of Hamas to power in the Palestinian parliamentary elections suggests that the Palestinian public, too, shows no sign of accepting it any time soon.
To complicate matters, the Israeli public debate, including the core of the decision-making elites, has been permeated by post-Zionist claims which are aimed at undermining the Zionist narrative. Some of these claims reflect an ideology that repudiates the belief in a Jewish state; some are a product of historical ignorance; some reflect a kind of wishful thinking; some a reflexive self-incrimination as a response to perceived helplessness; and some simply reflect the poll-driven considerations of political manipulation. Both in Israel and in universities around the world, there is a great deal of ignorance on this question. Many students, for example, believe that in 1948 there was a Palestinian state, and that in the War of Independence Israeli colonialists conquered it and occupied the land.
All this has had an impact on the government’s decisions over the last decade, including those that affect the deployment of IDF forces. The less of a political consensus there is, the less room the IDF has to maneuver. As chief of staff, on quite a few occasions I refrained from carrying out an operation even when I believed it to be moral and correct, because of the cost it could be expected to carry in the internal Israeli debate.
The internal Israeli debate as to the justice of the Zionist enterprise may be mainly a civilian one, but the officers and soldiers in the IDF want to know what they are risking their lives for. When the validity of an independent Jewish state is called into question, officers and enlisted men alike may find themselves standing on shaky ground. As chief of staff I attached great importance to reinforcing this foundation. I initiated educational programs on those issues not subject to open political debate, aiming to raise awareness regarding Israel’s past, to deepen the roots of the soldiers’ knowledge of the country, to educate them to become good citizens of a democratic state, and to instill the values necessary to allow them to defeat their enemies while preserving their humanity. It is with this challenge, too, that the IDF will have to contend for the foreseeable future.
The problem of Israeli solidarity also has a socio-economic side. Israel’s wide income disparities do not make matters easy for the IDF. A situation in which some soldiers arrive at their base in private cars while others go home to empty refrigerators does not contribute to a sense of unity and shared sacrifice. The IDF cannot bridge socio-economic gaps, but it can do its part in aiding poorer communities, as it does with its Atidim program, and in providing financial assistance to needy soldiers, especially those who are serving in combat units. This allows them to continue serving without having to worry about supporting their families.
Needless to say, the fact that some communities do not serve in the army at all, and the unequal distribution of the security burden this entails, also undermines the nation’s sense of solidarity. The question of sharing the burden in general, and reserve military duty in particular, will continue to pose a challenge. The IDF has consistently supported sharing the responsibility for Israel’s security in a more equal way, although political constraints have prevented this. In lieu of this, the right thing to do is to honor and reward those who bear more than their share of the burden. Although these challenges are not, strictly speaking, military ones, they will have a direct impact on Israel’s solidarity and security in the future.
Israeli solidarity is also affected by the degree to which the rule of law and democratic principles are upheld in society. In a country where “law” has come to resemble a beautiful book on a shelf—it is read and used when the need arises, but at other times it is merely of ornamental value—it is of supreme importance that IDF commanders set an example, keep their hands clean, and teach their subordinates to do the same. As a military man who spent many years with Israel’s civilian decision makers, I knew how bad things had gotten in this regard, and I always saw it as my duty to keep the IDF from going down the same road.
Beyond the rule of law, I have seen a similar breakdown in democratic decision making—notably in the process that led to last summer’s disengagement from Gaza. Few things can be of greater importance to the future of Israeli solidarity than maintaining the trust of the soldiers in their officers and the trust of the public in the IDF. Thus it was clear to me that the IDF had to carry out in the best possible way what was, in the end, a decision taken by the political echelon, while making clear to officers and soldiers the importance of adhering to the rule of law and to the rules of the democratic game. For more than a year, I prepared the IDF for this mission, one of the hardest ever imposed on me, and I am proud of the soldiers and the officers for the way they carried it out despite what was clearly a flawed decision-making process on the political level. In so complex a reality, IDF officers must maintain their professional integrity and remember that in a democracy, they are responsible to policies, not politicians.
The tendency to delegitimize the “other” in Israeli society is potentially catastrophic as well, both with regard to the external “other,” and to the “other” within. Against an enemy, soldiers must be prepared to fight because of a duty to defend rather than hatred for the enemy. As for the internal “other,” during my military service I met Israelis of all walks of life, and I came to understand the depth of the societal rifts that undermine the cohesiveness of the country. Mandatory military service is an opportunity to bring together people from different communities. This is part of what it means to be a “people’s army.”
In the last few years, the IDF’s status as a people’s army has been called into question, with proposals to transform it into a regular professional force. This debate, as I see it, is premature, because the IDF will have to continue to maintain its present size, more or less, for the foreseeable future. It is true that, over the last three years, I myself took the lead in reducing the size of the regular and reserve armies, a process that was made possible as the result of changes in the threat and especially in the wake of new technologies and capabilities. However, Israel is simply unable to finance a professional regular army of the required size. So it will have to continue relying on the existing combination: A relatively small regular army based on what conscription can yield, and a reserve system large enough to make up the difference. Only when our strategic threat level drops significantly, or when the country’s population grows substantially, will it be possible to discuss doing away with the “people’s army.”
Let me conclude by saying that today, Israel’s strategic position is much stronger than it has been in the past, but the challenges of the future are great. The central one, as I have suggested, is to persuade hostile neighbors to recognize Israel, and to reconcile themselves to its right to exist as an independent Jewish state.
This is connected to the second major challenge: To internalize the advantages of a Western “society of plenty” without losing Jewish patriotism and identity, and without weakening the Zionist ethos. This, in my opinion, is more worrisome than the external threat: Within Israel and without, the fundamental question of the legitimacy of an independent Jewish state is being questioned, and not only on the fringes.
My mother survived the Holocaust. My father came to Palestine in 1925 from the Ukraine as a fifteen-year-old after one of his brothers had been murdered because he was a Jew, and another brother had been arrested because of his Zionist activity. My grandmother comes from a family that came to Safed after escaping the Spanish Inquisition, and has remained there ever since. To me it is clear that in a world divided into nations and countries, there must be at least one Jewish state, or else we will endure continuous persecution. With all the disagreement and confusion and mistakes, everything comes down to this one irreducible fact: We have no choice but to prevail.
In one of his last poems, Natan Alterman wrote:
Then the devil said:
This besieged one–
How shall I defeat him?
He has courage and skill to act
He has weapons and wisdom on his side.
And he said: I will not take away his strength
Neither bridle nor bit will I put on him
Nor will I make him fainthearted
Nor will I weaken his hand as in days of old.
Only this shall I do:
I shall dull his mind,
And he will forget that his cause is just.
Thus said the devil,
And the heavens paled with fear
As they watched him rise
To carry out his plan.
As a commander, I have seen the next generation of Israelis—before they enlist, during their regular military service, and later in the reserves—and I can testify that this generation is prepared for any challenge. In many ways this generation is superior to my own, just as I am convinced that my generation was superior to that of my parents. From the point of view of the quality of human resources, the State of Israel has people it can rely on. But without a national consensus as to the country’s aims and justification, military might is of little use. Our enemies draw encouragement from Israeli self-doubt. The greatest challenge facing the State of Israel, therefore, is to restore to Israeli society its faith in the righteousness of its path.
Lieutenant-General (res.) Moshe Yaalon served as chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces from 2002 to 2005. He is currently a distinguished military fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

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