Israel/Palestine: The Politics of a Two-State Solution

  • Israel/Palestine and the Politics of a Two-State Solution
  • When Peace Fails: Lessons from Belfast for the Middle East

Friday, January 7, 2011

The Future of Israel's Military Politicians

After my second book, on liberal parties in settler societies, was published in 2002 I thought about what I wanted to research and write about next. I decided to do a comparative study that would cast light on the phenomenon of military politicians--former senior military officers elected to serve in the Knesset--in Israel. I figured this subject was worth writing about for two reasons. First, serving generals or former generals in government had negotiated every agreement reached with the Arabs from the armistice agreements of 1949 to the Oslo accords. Second, since 1967 military politicians had a virtual lock on the defense ministry and also played a dominant role in the Labor Party and the Likud. So I wanted to be able to make an educated guess as to how much longer the phenomenon would last in Israel.

I knew as a student of American history that the United States had such a class and from doing research in South Africa I knew that it also had a class. Not wanting to rely on such a narrow base of examples I read histories of all the former British settler colonies to see if I could find a trace of any additional groups. My minimum standard was at least four military politicians who had served in parliament or the central government with a minimum of two each during two separate periods to constitute a class. Less than this would not allow me to make conclusions about the country. After I failed to turn up any candidates among the former British settler colonies I expanded my search to include all the European colonial powers that were democracies during their colonial period or within 20 years of its end (i.e. Weimar Germany). I also failed to turn up any cases.

After taking my American and South African cases I was able to divide them into three separate periods each for a potential of six cases to examine: 1) the early American republic 1780s-1790s; 2) the antebellum period 1824-1860; 3) the postbellum period 1869-93; 4) the Boer republics period 1859-1900; 5) the Union of South Africa 1910-1948; 6) the apartheid period 1975-1993. For comparison I was looking at a multiparty system with at least three parties that could be readily compared to Israeli parties and a minimum of at least two major military politicians. Only two periods fit this minimum requirements: the antebellum period and the Union of South Africa. The early American republic and the Boer republics had two-party systems and the Boers also lacked standing armies and had less than 20,000 voters in any election. And during the apartheid period South Africa had only a single elected military politician, Defense Minister Magnus Malan.

America's Indian-fighter politicians of the antebellum period ended with Zachary Taylor. Four presidents (George Washington, Andrew Jackson, William Harrison, Zachary Taylor) and one vice-president (Richard Johnson) had been Indian fighters. Washington had been an Indian fighter in the French and Indian War (1754-63); Jackson and Harrison in the War of 1812; and Taylor in the War of 1812, the Black Hawk War, and the Second Seminole War. Except for Harrison they were mainly famous for victories over conventional armies, but the Indian fighting had significantly advanced their military careers and made their subsequent victories over the British or Mexicans possible. The same can be said of Arab-fighter politicians in Israel from Israel's first two generations of military politicians such as Yigal Allon, Moshe Dayan, Yitzhak Rabin, and Ariel Sharon.

The postbellum Indian wars in the West produced no major politicians because the wars involved a professional army rather than a popular militia system and the few settlers in the West were remote from the population concentrations on the East Coast, in the Great Lakes Region, and in California. Thus the link between the serving soldiers and the politicians/war heroes were broken. But this Indian-fighter politician class was replaced by first heroes of the Mexican War and then of the American Civil War.

In South Africa the African-fighter politicians of the South African (Transvaal) Republic came to an end with the conquest of that republic by the British in 1900. They in turn were replaced by politicians who were senior officers in the Second Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902). These politicians were quite numerous during the decade of 1907-1917. But many were forced to retire from politics for having sided with the Afrikaner rebels in 1914 who fought on the side of the Germans/neutrality in order to prevent South Africa from siding with the Allies. Louis Botha died in office as prime minister in 1919. This left just two members of the class: Jan Smuts, Botha's assistant, and James Barry Munick Hertzog. Smuts and Hertzog remained rivals until 1934 when their two parties fused. Hertzog retired from politics in 1942 a broken man and Smuts retired in 1950 after having lost the 1948 election to the National Party. The two world wars failed to produce any military politicians largely because the Union Defense Force was a professional army and it fought in East Africa and France in World War I and in North Africa in World War II.

So based on the experiences of the United States, South Africa, and Israel in the 19th and 20th centuries I concluded that three things are necessary to produce a class of military politicians. First, there must be a conscript or militia system rather than a professional army. Second, there must be settler self-rule within twenty years of the end of serious fighting with the native population. Third, there must be a serious if not existential threat posed by the resistance of the natives to the settlers. The other settler colonies lacked military politicians for three main reasons. First, the imperial army was responsible for the defense of the colony. Second, the settlers lacked self rule during the period of fighting with the natives. Third, the native resistance never posed a serious threat to the settlers during the 19th and 20th centuries. In several colonies two or even all three of these conditions applied.

Israel's military politicians, like those of the United States and South Africa, belong to several different political parties and have a range of political beliefs. The main difference among the groups is that the Afrikaners and Americans had intertwined political and military careers rather than sequential careers as in Israel. For example, Washington served as a British army officer, then as a politician in Virginia's House of Burgesses, then as the commanding general in the American Revolution and finally as the president. Jackson had an early political career in the 1790s. He then withdrew to concentrate on a career as a planter and as a general in the Tennessee militia. He then became a regular U.S. Army general in 1814 and served for a decade before quitting to run for president in 1824. Louis Botha, Jan Smuts, and Barry Hertzog all were professional politicians before serving with the Afrikaner commandos in the Boer War. Botha became commander of the Boer forces in early 1901. After the war he served as a politician again before once more donning a uniform to fight the Germans in South West Africa in 1915. He then returned to Pretoria to continue as prime minister. Hertzog never wore a uniform in the field again after 1902. Smuts served as a general in both World War I and World War II. In the United States only Taylor and Ulysses S. Grant had conventional Israeli-style consecutive careers. Taylor retired from the Army in 1848 after over forty years and ran for president. Grant retired in 1868 after some 17 years of service over a quarter century period.

So my prediction is that for some fifteen to twenty years after Israel signs a peace treaty with the Palestinians, if such a peace treaty is ever signed, Israel will continue to have military politicians. This is important because among the center-left parties only former generals have the security credentials to be able to sell a peace deal with the Arabs. Dayan, Allon, Rabin, and Sharon all had those credentials. Without Rabin, Peres would not have been able to sell the Oslo agreements to the Israeli public. So this phenomenon of Israeli militarization should be embraced by supporters of peace rather than deplored.

Since June 1967 only two politicians have served as defense ministers in Israel who were not either former generals or professional military industry technocrats (Shimon Peres and Moshe Arens). These three were: Menahem Begin (1980-81), and Amir Peretz (2006-07). Begin deferred to whatever the Israeli general staff wanted. Peretz ended up in charge during the Second Lebanon War with a new inexperienced prime minister, Ehud Olmert, and a chief of staff from the Israeli Air Force rather than the ground forces. The next year he was quietly replaced by Ehud Barak, the most decorated soldier in Israeli history, and his political career seems to have come to an end.

Comparable military dominance of civilian institutions existed in the United States where former Civil War generals had a lock on the Republican nomination for president from 1868 to 1892, with the exception of James Blaine who was nominated in 1884 and lost to Grover Cleveland. Grant served for two terms and Ruthorford B. Hayes, Chester Arthur, and Benjamin Harrison each served for a single term as president. In South Africa former Boer generals had a lock on the premiership from 1910 to 1948. But because the South African case involves fewer politicians who were more skilled, the U.S. example is a better one to compare with Israel.

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