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Israeli Civilianization

8 January 2006

By Yisrael Ne’eman

Since PM Ariel Sharon’s stroke last week it is understood that he will not be returning to public office. This is the end of an era. But the question of what Israel’s future is less clear and not particularly discussed.

Vice-Premier Ehud Olmert is Acting PM until a new government will be formed after the March 28 elections. Clearly seen as Number 2 in Sharon’s Kadima faction, Olmert will become the party’s candidate for the premiership. Add him to Labor’s Amir Peretz and the Likud’s Netanyahu and we find no generals among the three leading candidates for prime minister. The retired army brass is taking a back seat to the nation’s leading politicians. Israel may finally be entering a phase of civilianization of its national life.

Peretz, the former Histadrut Labor Union leader defeated Shimon Peres (who came out of the defense dept. in the 1950s and 60s and was defense minister from 1974-77) in November to gain the Labor party leadership. Netanyahu, whose business and financial expertise helped turn the Israeli economy around during his 2.5 years as finance minister, now leads the Likud after outmaneuvering Sharon and forcing his resignation from the party. Olmert was a Knesset member from the 1970s and into the 1990s, defeated Teddy Kollek in the 1993 race for mayor of Jerusalem and served for nine years before joining Sharon’s campaign for the 2003 elections.

Labor calls itself “center left”, the Likud claims “center right” and Kadima is the “pragmatic center”. Meretz, considered too far to the left may poll only five seats while all the right wing factions together will capture less than fifteen. Call it the rise of a moderate civilian center where extremists will be relegated to the sidelines and ex-military men will be expected to dance to a civil agenda even if one of them will run the ministry of defense.

From 1948 to 1974 Israel was led by David Ben Gurion, Moshe Sharett, Levi Eshkol and Golda Meir – none of whom were military experts. From 1974 onwards everyone has an army or underground resume. The shock of the initial setbacks in the 1973 Yom Kippur War had its effect. Yitzchak Rabin was a former chief of staff, Menachem Begin headed the Irgun underground, Yitzchak Shamir led the Lehi and later joined the Mossad, Shimon Peres was from the defense establishment, Ehud Barak was a former chief of staff and Ariel Sharon was Israel’s most famous general. True, Netanyahu was PM for three years in the late 1990s but he too was an officer in the elite Sayeret Matkal commandos.

Israel is shifting towards a more “normal” society where top political leaders have business, labor, academic, education, science, cultural and legal backgrounds without a prerequisite of leadership in the defense establishment. This is what was hoped for and implemented during Israel’s first generation. The “best and the brightest” led the military in Israel’s early years and came to fruition as politicians in the second generation. Israel needs civilian expertise for development in the 21st century.

The Jewish State not only wants to absorb immigrants but faces the threat of emigration from its own youth due to a lack of career opportunities and the draw of a higher standard of living in the West. Civilianization will guarantee the creative advancement of Israeli society where positive energy and the best minds will invest themselves in developing a state serving as a magnet for Jews the world over.

The military will continue ensuring security as it always has, but its elite status will give way to leadership in other spheres. And just maybe this country will become “normal”.