Israel: A Politically Monitored Military in a Militarized Society
- Yagil LevyYagil LevyDepartment of Sociology, Political Science and Communication, The Open University of Israel
Two opposing arguments are heard in the political and academic discourse in Israel regarding the status of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). One claims that the IDF possesses too much power and that military thought governs political thought, thus it is “a military that has a state.” The other contends that the military is oversupervised by civilian groups. However, both arguments are correct if we relate each to a specific domain of civil–military relations.
Since its establishment in 1948, the IDF has become increasingly subordinated to civilian control. During the 1950s, it was a military that dictated policies and often acted in direct defiance of the elected government; but since then, it has gradually lost much of its autonomy and become highly monitored by civilians. Areas that were conventionally considered to be within the military’s sphere of professional competence have become subject to civilian control. There has been increasing civilian intrusion into the military domain, starting with the monitoring of military operations during the 1950s, and culminating in the 2000s with increased monitoring of the IDF’s human and material resources and its activities in policing the Palestinian population. This process also signifies a transition from control performed exclusively by formal state institutions to increasing engagement by extrainstitutional actors (such as social movements and civil rights organizations) backed by the media and focused on issues ranging from recruitment policies and the investigation of operational accidents to actual military operations.
At the same time, those ascribing too much power to the military are also right. Israeli political culture has been militarized from the early years of the state, except for a short period of demilitarization during the 1980s–1990s. Militarization developed from initially just prioritizing the military approach over political-diplomatic methods during the state’s first years, and continued with the predominance of military over political discourse after the 1967 War, and the religionization of politics since the 2000s. Throughout this process, the ongoing friction with the Palestinians in the West Bank and Israel’s wars in Gaza were presented as a religious war and the Palestinians were dehumanized.
Thus, it is military thought that is powerful rather than the military organization itself, which has lost much of its former autonomy; military thought still governs civilian politics. Moreover, to a large extent, during the 2000s, not only did rightist and religious groups become the main promoters of militarization rather than the IDF and its officers’ social networks, but the new trends of militarization even clashed with the military command and its secular rationale, thus further challenging its professional autonomy.