Sergeant Azaria's trial has widened a divide.

Photographer: Jack Guez/AFP/Getty Images

The Worrisome Politicization of Israel's Military

Daniel Gordis is senior vice president and Koret distinguished fellow at Shalem College in Jerusalem. Author of 11 books, his latest is "Israel: A Concise History of a Nation Reborn."
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In September 1948, four months after Israel’s creation and with its War of Independence still raging, the country’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, dismantled the military’s most elite unit. The Palmach, many of whose fighters had been trained by the British during the Mandate, was the closest thing that Israel had to special forces. So why, with the country still battling for its life and with many vehemently opposed to his decision, did Ben-Gurion do away with it? 

The reasons were political, not military. Ben-Gurion was by no means oblivious to the Palmach’s value as a fighting force, but he worried that it was too associated with the political left. Ben-Gurion was himself the head of the political left, so it was not the views of the Palmach’s members that worried him. He was concerned about the potential association of the armed forces with any political party or position. He wanted an apolitical military, loyal only to the state and to the rule of law.

Over the course of Israel’s tumultuous seven decades, Ben-Gurion’s vision has more or less prevailed. Although many of the country’s leaders (Yitzhak Rabin, Ariel Sharon, Ehud Barak, to name a few) entered politics after reaching the military’s highest echelons, the Israel Defense Forces have remained mostly apolitical. Lately, though, many Israelis have begun to worry that this hallowed tradition is in danger.

The most recent development was Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s decision last week to dismiss Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon (once the army’s chief of staff) and to replace him with Avigdor Lieberman. This far-right politician, with no military experience to speak of, is perceived as a loose cannon who sees the IDF as a tool for bludgeoning Israel’s enemies. He wanted Israel to recapture Gaza in the summer of 2014, has called for the death penalty for terrorists and even threatened to bomb Egypt’s Aswan dam. Although Netanyahu was motivated primarily by a desire to strengthen his coalition (the prime minister reportedly dislikes Lieberman), the appointment is seen by many as a dangerous erosion of several longstanding traditions of justice and transparency that also developed in Ben-Gurion’s era.

To be sure, the military has long been the target of political criticism. For decades, it was the left that was most vociferous in its objections to the IDF’s conduct. The Lebanon War of 1982 -- a quagmire from which it took Israel 18 years to extract itself -- was initiated by Menachem Begin, a Likud politician, who, though he surprised his political foes by ceding the Sinai to make peace with Egypt, never overcame the left’s disdain for him and his role in the Jewish military underground that dislodged the British. To many Israelis, Lebanon was the first conflict that Israel had chosen to fight. It was then that Israeli society first heard public outcries against not just specific incidents misdeeds by small groups of soldiers (such as the massacre at Kafr Qassem) but against the top brass as a whole.

The left’s anger at the military only deepened with rising public frustration about the army’s conduct in the occupied West Bank. When Palestinian fury erupted with the First Intifada beginning in 1987, many on the left condemned the military’s heavy-handedness. The IDF’s role in protecting settlements, which the left also opposed (and still does) only exacerbated the tensions between the army and the political left that Ben-Gurion had created and led.

More recently, however, Israel’s political right has expressed increasing frustration with the army. When IDF Sergeant Elor Azaria fatally shot Abdel Fatal al-Sharif (a terrorist who had just attacked soldiers in Hebron but, neutralized, was lying wounded on the ground) on March 24, many Israelis were horrified. To most viewers, the video of the shooting, which went viral, indicated that the terrorist constituted no threat. The shooting thus struck many as an apparent unjustified killing -- and the army promptly charged the sergeant with manslaughter. His trial began last week.

Regardless of the outcome, many Israelis took pride in the fact that even though Abdel Fatal al-Sharif was a terrorist and had tried to kill soldiers, the army was nonetheless prosecuting Azaria. Killings are either justified, or not, and most Israelis wanted to get to the truth.

Not all did, however. One of those who demonstrated unswerving support for the shooter was Lieberman, who said, “It could be that the soldier was right and it could be that he was wrong, but a live soldier who was mistaken is better than a soldier who hesitated and was murdered by a terrorist.” Defense Minister Ya’alon vociferously disagreed with that attitude and said that those who were defending the solider were undermining Israel’s laws and longstanding values. The backlash against Ya’alon was so vehement that even Azaria’s father came to the minister’s defense in a letter: “In the face of the campaign of incitement against you, I feel it is only right to stand by you and strongly condemn” it.

Where does the prime minister stand? Although he defended his defense minister and criticized the incitement, it was Ya’alon whom he fired and Lieberman who got his position. Upon taking leave from the military, Ya’alon said, “The army needs to win, but it also needs to remain human.” Most Israelis agree, and even many on the right were saddened and wondered whether the prime minister’s commitment to that long-sanctified Israeli tradition would be sacrificed to the need to keep his coalition intact.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

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