The General in Politics

The General in Politics

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


Chief of Staff Lt. General Benny Gantz’s interview with Haaretz two days ago raised a number of interesting issues concerning Israel’s policy intentions vis-à-vis Iran. Gantz clearly was challenging the policy direction and intentions expressed even last week by Prime Minister Netanyahu and seconded by Defense Minister Ehud Barak. Unlike the Head of Government and his boss (who once held Gantz’ job) who have been using every opportunity—even a Yom HaShoah address—to reiterate the imminent danger toward which Israel was moving with Iran, Gantz appeared to take a totally different tack. 

Gantz spoke in his interview in a relatively temperate manner about the threat that Iran presented. He suggested that Iran was not yet at the point of making a decision to produce a nuclear weapon; that Iran and it 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 obvious difference within the highest ranks of the Israeli security circle raises a number of questions. Should the Chief of Staff even be giving interviews and 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 to be depicted, is this good for the morale of soldiers preparing and maneuvering for an engagement; for them to see their military leader appear to be 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?

There are two less than satisfactory answers which can be given, beyond the obvious ones. The Netanyahu Government wanted this debate to be publicized and to be recognized. It planned it this way. Bibi wanted Iran and the world to see the debate and then to watch and see who wins and how a democracy works.  Alternatively, Gantz was so frustrated with the nature of the military discussion and “public planning” that he threatened to resign if he could not make know his own views.

Regardless of the answers that are given to these questions, it seems that there is a very basic systemic matter that has served the U.S. military and American politics very well and which Israel could adopt. We tend to seriously separate the public role on defense matters played by the Secretary of Defense from the strategic and tactical military roles played by the Chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff of U.S. Armed Forces. American commanders—even major field commanders– have spoken out and not all have been dismissed like MacArthur; but they generally do not engage in polarizing debates. Gantz’ actions and his future behavior as a general operating within the political world will bear serious attention as much as how Israeli policy on Iran emerges.

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