What does the future hold for Israel’s military politicians?

Could the Jewish state ever be lead by a class of non-military politicians? Until there is a peace agreement with the Palestinians, it seems unlikely. And even then, who knows?

By Thomas G. Mitchell

Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Minister Ariel Sharon (photo: Saar Yaacov, Government Press Office / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Minister Ariel Sharon (photo: Saar Yaacov, Government Press Office / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Historically there have been two types of Israeli leaders who have been willing to give up territory to the Arabs in exchange for peace. The first type consists of conservative civilian politicians who distrust and fear the Arabs, but who, because of foreign pressure or opportunity, are willing to make peace under the right circumstances. Examples of these are Golda Meir in 1974, Menahem Begin in 1977-79 with Sadat, and Benjamin Netanyahu during his first term in 1997-98. These leaders are able to make peace because they have had cabinets full of former generals who give them credibility with the public. Meir had Moshe Dayan at defense and Yigal Allon as her labor minister. Begin had four former generals: Ezer Weizman as defense minister, Dayan as foreign minister, Ariel Sharon as agriculture minister and Yigal Yadin as deputy prime minister. Netanyahu appointed Sharon foreign minister before the two of them went off to face Yasser Arafat at the Wye Plantation in October 1998. David Ben-Gurion probably would have been in this group if the Arabs had been ready to make peace when he was prime minister.

The second type consists of prime ministers who are themselves former generals: Yitzhak Rabin and Ehud Barak. So it would seem that the fate of Israel’s class of military politicians is pretty important to peace between Israel and its Arab neighbors. In fact, every peace agreement between Israel and the Arabs starting with the armistice agreements in 1949 has been negotiated either by serving generals (or colonels) or by former generals. The one major exception to this rule is the Oslo II agreement negotiated by Shimon Peres.

I don’t have a crystal ball with which to predict the future of this class, but I do have the next best thing. Two Western countries, the United States in the late 18th and the 19th centuries, and South Africa in the late 19th and 20th centuries, had similar classes of military politicians. America’s class began immediately after the American Revolution in the 1780s and lasted until 1893, when Benjamin Harrison stepped down as president. It was most important in the second wave from 1824 to 1857, when its members consisted of former Indian fighters from the War of 1812 and generals from the Mexican War. This was the period when the Whig Party had three generals who could capture the White House. When the last general, Winfield Scott, failed in his bid for the White House in 1852, the Whig Party began to collapse. By 1856, when it endorsed another party’s candidate for the presidency, the Whigs were already a rump party. The third wave consisted of former political generals from the Civil War—professional politicians who were given commissions during the war—who served mainly as symbols of the role of the Republican Party in defeating the Southern attempt at secession.

In South Africa there was a class of African-fighter politicians in one of the two main Boer republics, the South African Republic or Transvaal Republic. Its leading figure was Paul Kruger, who served as president of the republic from 1881 to 1902. The second wave consisted of a number of former Boer generals from the Second Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902), who alternated as prime ministers from 1910 to 1948. South Africa then went through three decades without military politicians until President P.W. Botha made his chief of staff, General Magnus Malan, his defense minister to serve as the military’s representative in the cabinet. Malan remained defense minister for a decade before a scandal forced him to give up the defense ministry for another post. He retired from politics less than a year later. He was the last military politician before the end of the apartheid regime.

What these two cases have in common is that military politicians remained in politics as long as there were serious military threats of rebellion, or threats from either the native population or neighboring countries. In America, Indian-fighter politicians were replaced by Mexican War generals once the Indians ceased to constitute a serious threat to most of the population of the country.

From all of America’s foreign wars of the 20th century, only one former general was elected president: Dwight Eisenhower in 1952. Alexander Haig and Wesley Clark utterly failed in their bids to win their parties’ nomination. And in South Africa, no military politicians emerged from the country’s participation in the two world wars.

Of all the conditions that led to the demise of Indian-fighter politicians in America, only one has been reproduced in Israel: when the Palestinians temporarily lost their main foreign military supplier with the demise of the Soviet Union. Iran, however, has quickly moved in to fill the vacuum. Therefore, it can be safely predicted, based on the American and South African experiences, that until there is a peace treaty with Palestine, and probably for 15 or 20 years after, Israel will continue to produce military politicians.

Not content to rely on only two cases, I also examined all the other former British settler colonies to see if I could find other cases of military-politician classes. The search came up negative. I then looked at former European colonial powers that were also democracies. Both France and Weimar Germany had three former generals in politics, but this is too small a number to draw conclusions from. Franco’s Spain had more—but it was not a democracy and the generals came to power through a civil war.

From the experiences of the U.S., South Africa, and Israel, I have concluded that three conditions were necessary to produce a class of military politicians. First, there had to be a serious and prolonged threat to the country’s population either from the native population or from its neighbors. Second, the country had to be responsible for its own defense. And finally, the country had to be both independent and a democracy (at least for the white settlers). In all, of the other British settler colonies, one or more of these conditions was not present. At most, it was the British army that was responsible for security, and independence came long after the native population had been defeated and subdued.

In the second part, I will examine in detail the attitudes of Israel’s most successful military politicians towards peace with the Palestinians.

Thomas G. Mitchell is the author of Mr. Security: Israeli Military Politicians from Dayan to Barak, due out from McFarland Publishing in late 2014.

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