Why are Israeli generals such terrible politicians?

The popular myth that army generals have the skills to excel in politics will continue so long as Israeli society idealizes the military and masculinity.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and former Israel's Defense Minister Ehud Barak change the epaulets of Israeli Chief of Staff Benny Gantz, February 14, 2011. (Abir Sultan/Flash90)
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and former Israel's Defense Minister Ehud Barak change the epaulets of Israeli Chief of Staff Benny Gantz, February 14, 2011. (Abir Sultan/Flash90)

With the prospect of a fourth election in two years on the horizon, the political rumor mill in Israel is, yet again, excitedly discussing a potential new centrist party led by veteran military leaders. If this seems familiar, it is because we are witnessing yet another iteration of the failed political enterprise of Israeli generals.

This time around, reporting suggests that former IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot, who retired in 2019, may join forces with Moshe “Bogie” Ya’alon, who was Defense Minister in 2013-16 under Benjamin Netanyahu and the army’s General Chief of Staff in 2002-05 under Ariel Sharon. Convention suggests that their “national security” credentials will galvanize political support and present a challenge and a genuine alternative to centrist political parties and to Netanyahu’s Likud party.

This popular electoral narrative, however, is not backed by the evidence. Multiple high-ranking IDF veterans have attempted to start political careers in the past few decades, and almost all have been unsuccessful in the long term. More importantly, former generals have proven to be ineffective politicians, both as legislators and as ministers. Yet news outlets continue to promote the myth that they are strong political candidates and the only true alternative to Netanyahu’s reign.

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The traction behind this claim is due to the entrenched gender bias in the Israeli media and voting public, which itself comes down in part to the highly-militarized nature of Israeli society. Israel’s security-based national discourse promotes leadership ideals that are stereotypically hyper-masculine and associated with military experience, such as assertiveness, rationality, aggression, and decisiveness (with the added implication that such men, if in political power, will be “tough on the Arabs”).

These assumptions also factor into Israelis’ high level of trust in the army, which they valorize as the ultimate manifestation of national success, stability, and reliability. But this, too, is built on a myth. Within the Green Line, the military does not provide services, nor does it govern the citizenry. The Israeli state is stable due to civilian and bureaucratic institutions, which oversee everything from infrastructure to education and environmental protection, and many of its staff are women — few of whom are credited with the aura of infallibility that Israeli generals enjoy.

Paradoxically, there is a widespread belief among Israelis that IDF veterans, whose experiences are not easily translated to the political arena, have better qualifications for office than do civilians and technocrats with real-world professional networks and expertise. This perception of generals as being overqualified is also gendered: the Israeli public over-rewards military men for performing the masculine act of maintaining national security.

This isn’t the army

Beyond the broad assumption that military alpha males make ideal candidates for political leadership, there is also evidence that explicit gender bias and sexist attitudes motivate the public to support less qualified men over more qualified women political candidates.

Israelis claim to prefer assertive and dominant political candidates with perceived high levels of issue competence in national security — characteristics heavily associated with masculinity, and even more so with the military. As a result, political candidates with a military background enjoy an unfair advantage over other experienced and qualified candidates, facilitated in great part by the Israeli media overestimating the competence and knowledge of the former military brass.

This theory of effective leadership and governance resembles the neoliberal American idea that government should be run more like a business. In the United States, deficit hawks and fiscal conservatives argue that the goal of governance should be to have a budget surplus and operate with financial efficiency. Similarly, the argument in Israel is that generals best understand key aspects of Israeli stability, namely security, and are able to command others to follow their orders.

Israeli soldiers attend a swearing-in ceremony as they enter the Givati Brigade unit, at the Western Wall in Jerusalem Old City, June 23, 2016. (Flash90)
Israeli soldiers attend a swearing-in ceremony as they enter the Givati Brigade unit, at the Western Wall in Jerusalem Old City, June 23, 2016. (Flash90)

Both of these theories are incompatible with democratic governance. First and foremost, government is not a business: its primary goal is not to earn a profit, but rather to manage civilian populations and provide services. The consensus among economists is that government financial policy is different precisely because state institutions can take on financial risks that private individuals cannot, such as taking on significant debt.

Similarly, state institutions and bureaucracies do not operate within the strict hierarchy and command structure of a military. Government is instead about representation of constituents, which requires cooperation and collaboration across different sectors to provide the best possible services to the public. Because Israel does not function as a military dictatorship inside the Green Line, the skillset of Israeli generals is not applicable to the country’s civilian institutions. The degree of public scrutiny and accountability required in elected office is therefore completely foreign to high-ranking officers. Israelis should want leaders who prioritize their interests and preferences, rather than a leadership that dictates to them.

Political novices

Over the past three election cycles in 2019 and 2020, Benny Gantz, the former IDF Chief of Staff and current Deputy Prime Minister and Defense Minister, was marketed as the only viable competition to Netanyahu. Gantz established the Israel Resilience Party in 2018, only three years after retiring from the military; neither he nor his party declared their policy positions prior to their official entry into politics. With the media already crowning Gantz as Netanyahu’s successor, he had no incentive to alienate potential supporters by providing details on how he planned to govern. Gantz’s statuesque physique, Ashkenazi identity, and military credentials provided sufficient qualifications; only women and minorities, it seems, must provide evidence to justify their candidacy.

The back-to-back elections (with another potentially on the way) resulted in a constitutional crisis and political instability. Gantz was unable to gain the necessary support from other political parties to establish a government. Eventually, he chose to join a Netanyahu-led coalition despite his core campaign promise — in the absence of concrete policies — to oust the prime minister.

Being a political novice, it is unsurprising that Gantz did not have the relationships or networks to convince other political parties to join his coalition. His military CV did not give him the nous and experience to be able to compete with Netanyahu’s ability to bargain, cajole, and deliver political results — an ability directly rooted in experience, connections, and institutional knowledge. In other words, qualifications.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (C), Minister of Defense Moshe Ya'alon (R) and IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz (L) seen at a press conference at the Prime Minister's office in Jerusalem, August 27, 2014. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90).
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Minister of Defense Moshe Ya’alon and IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz seen at a press conference at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem, August 27, 2014. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90).

The fact is that none of the “general-led” parties in Israel have the resources, infrastructure, or connections to mobilize voters and politicians at the level needed to remove Netanyahu. Besides, why should parties abandon Netanyahu? Those allied with him overwhelmingly achieve their policy goals, get guaranteed cabinet ministries and the corresponding budgets, and are able to provide perks to their base.

Political novices are unable to offer such things, and political parties understandably make the strategic choice to join forces with someone who has an existing track record of success. Rather than focusing on immediate electoral achievements with little-to-no plan for the day after, parties and voters need to focus on sustainable and long-term social and political goals — which military generals, no matter their track record, have little knowledge strategizing around.

It is, then, precisely their army career that has prevented each of the generals entering Israeli politics from unseating Netanyahu.

Although many such figures — former head of the Southern Command and now Likudnik Yoav Galant, former IDF Chief of Staff and now Gantz’s running-mate Gabi Ashkenazi, and so on — are able to speedily ascend to cabinet positions, they have not established clear policy visions, nor do they present a significant challenge to veteran politicians. Often such politicians — such as former Prime Minister Ehud Barak — are viewed as difficult to work with, incapable of collaboration, or recruiting support for policies and legislation.

Instead, the primary force sustaining the generals’ political careers is the unfounded belief that they will excel in a professional field that they have no qualifications in — a misapprehension that will persevere so long as Israeli society continues to idealize the military and masculinity.