Out of order? A defense chief’s dissent on Iran

Out of order? A defense chief’s dissent on Iran

Gilbert N. Kahn is a professor of Political Science at Kean University.

It went public when Chief of Staff Lt. General Benny Gantz gave an interview to Ha’aretz for Yom Ha’atzmaut. In it, Gantz challenged Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak on their Iran policy. Unlike Netanyahu and Barak (who once held Gantz’s job), Gantz spoke in a relatively temperate manner about the threat that Iran presents. He suggested that Iran was not yet at the point of making a decision to produce a nuclear weapon; that Iran and its leaders were rational actors and would not act irresponsibly; and that the current wave of economic and petroleum sanctions imposed by the West were indeed beginning to work.

This public agreement within the highest ranks of Israeli security raises a number of questions. Should the chief of staff even be giving interviews? Does he not work for the prime minister? Is he being insubordinate and ought he be reprimanded? While one may agree with his analysis, can a government tolerate such a wide public divergence of views over such a critical issue?

Even if the government wanted a “good cop/bad cop” debate, is it good for the morale of soldiers to see their military leader at odds with their political leader? No one assumes there is unanimity within any government’s highest decision-making chambers, but why was such a critical difference aired in public?

Perhaps the Netanyahu government wanted this debate to be publicized and planned it this way. Under this scenario, Bibi wanted Iran and the world to see how a democracy works. As prime minister, he also wanted his citizens to understand not only the extent to which he would open up the discussion but also his ability to control the outcome.

Alternatively, Gantz was so frustrated with the nature of the military discussion that he threatened to resign if he could not make known his own views. Gantz and the Israeli public knew that he had not been the government’s first choice to be chief of staff. That was Gen. Yoav Galant, whose bid was withdrawn after it was revealed that he had taken public lands for private use. Gantz might have believed that the government’s military and security policies were being too heavily influenced by politics.

Gantz also knows that many former leading security officials (including former chiefs of the Shin Bet and the Mossad) have been openly questioning the government’s Iran policy, giving him the confidence to go public as well. Perhaps Gantz believed that were he to remain silent, he would have to support a policy that he disagreed with — which he apparently in good conscience could not do.

Whatever the reasons for Gantz’s candor (or indiscretion, depending on how you look at it), the squabble in Israel reveals a difference between Israel and the United States when it comes to the relationship between the military and elected officials. The United States separates the public role on defense matters played by the civilian Secretary of Defense from the strategic and tactical military roles played by the Chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff. This practice of ensuring civilian control of the military, and elevating the status and authority of civilian appointees over military personnel, could serve Israel as well as it does the United States.

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