The Israeli army — or the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) — has assumed since the 1967 war an increasingly prominent role in Israeli society. Today the IDF is the single largest factor in Israel’s economy. Its officer corps, once a highly motivated and ideologically cohesive elite trained in the ideology of Labor Zionism, has lost much of its original character, becoming more privileged and professionalized. Elements in the IDF higher echelons now more openly challenge Israel’s civilian political leaders on a broad range of critical issues, further evidence that a major change has occurred in the status and function of the military in Israeli society. This change is likely to have serious long-term consequences whatever the fate of Menachem Begin’s Likud government.

The root of IDF’s altered character and role lies in the intensification of Arab-Israeli conflict since the 1967 war, and especially Palestinian resistance to continuing military occupation of territories conquered in that war. Since 1967 the economic burden of Israel’s military machine has become enormous. During the years 1971-1980 nearly 37 percent of the government’s budget and over 16 percent of the country’s total economic resources have been devoted, on the average, to military expenditures each year. (The statistics in this article are based on the figures reported in the Israeli press before the final adoption of the 1980 budget. There is no doubt that by the end of the fiscal year the actual expenditures for all items of the budget, and especially the military, will increase. Therefore, although the 1980 figures used here cannot be considered absolutely accurate, it is highly unlikely that they have been understated.) This represents the highest rate of military spending in the world — four times the average for the NATO countries and five times that of the Warsaw Pact countries. At least 13 percent of Israel’s total labor force and 24 percent of the male population aged 18 to 45 is employed in the armed forces or in military production. [1] These labor force figures do not include those employed by the Border Guard, Shinbet (Security Services), regular police, or the many private and semi-official security agencies.

Israeli economists almost unanimously agree that military spending is the single largest factor in Israel’s astronomic rate of inflation and its growing foreign trade deficit. When proposals for the government budget for fiscal 1980 (beginning on April 1, 1980) were released, budget planners generally concurred that sharp cuts in government spending, including military funds, were essential in any attempt to control inflation.

A vigorous debate erupted in the Israeli press over whether the country could “afford” to reduce its military expenditures. Ezer Weizman’s announced reason for resigning in May as minister of defense was his opposition to proposed cuts in the military budget rather than differences with Prime Minister Begin over strategy in negotiations with Egypt. A high level group of government economic advisers submitted a secret memorandum which argued that, since Israel’s economy can no longer support the military machine at its current level, the country should adopt a “different security strategy”: reduction of conventional forces and the deployment of “cheaper” theater nuclear weapons, along the lines of NATO’s current military strategy. The very fact that a plan to rely on nuclear weapons as Israel’s basic military strategy was presented as an economic proposal indicates the extent to which military thinking and military requirements are affecting all sectors of Israeli society and gradually eliminating alternatives based on other considerations.

The American Connection

In the course of the debate over the viability of the nuclear option, P. Sever, the economic editor of Al-HaMishmar, daily newspaper of the “left wing” of the Alignment electoral bloc dominated by the Labor Party, assembled impressive statistical evidence of the extent to which the United States finances Israel’s military budget. It has generally been assumed in Israel that the main reason that military expenditures constituted such a drain on the economy was because imported military hardware had to be purchased with scarce US dollars. But US aid to Israel has more than compensated for the cost of Israel’s direct military imports in recent years. Since 1976 Israel has not spent a penny of its own to pay for military imports. The average contribution of US aid to the cost of Israel’s military imports in the period 1976-1980 is 129 percent — that is, 29 percent more than their actual cost.

As Sever wrote, “AID people in Washington…told me frankly that based on the civilian standard of living in Israel, ‘You don’t deserve even one dollar of US aid.’” [2] Thus the largest part of Israel’s military expenditures since 1967 have been directly financed by outright grants and loans (many of which are eventually forgiven) from the United States. The huge influx of US aid has brought the IDF to the point where its capacity to expand its power is not directly dependent on the ability of Israel’s economy to support it. This has provided the material basis for a growing antagonism between the army and many different sectors of Israeli society — one that was clearly evident during the public debate over the proposed cuts in military spending and the economists’ memorandum. Israeli public attention was focused on many previously little known aspects of the IDF and its operations. Sharp criticism of the army, particularly in the pages of the influential daily Haaretz, reached unheard of proportions. The Ministry of Defense and the army were accused of inefficiency, featherbedding, and giving unwarranted economic privileges to both military and civilian employees in the form of higher salaries and cost of living compensation than in the civilian sector.

For the first time in Israel’s history, a significant number of Israelis, including many influential intellectuals, perceive a contradiction between the narrow professional interests of the army (especially its regular officers) and the rest of the citizenry. This perception was not the product of the budget discussion alone. Months before the budget debate, Zeev Sternhell wrote in Haaretz that the army’s commanders had become “a corps of Prussian officers cut off from the nation and contemptuous of it.” [3]

Despite public criticism, the army high command rejected all calls to reduce its financial demands in light of the precarious state of the Israeli economy. Chief of Staff Rafael Eitan publicly opposed any cuts in the military budget, and indicated that he actually wished to increase it. He proposed that Israel declare an “emergency economy,” as the Soviet Union had done in World War II. The military would receive first priority and all other social functions would be subordinated to its economic requirements. [4]

When the smoke cleared from the battle of the budget, the Ministry of Defense “gave up” about $414 million earmarked for arms imports and development of new tanks and planes. However, this equipment has already been ordered from US manufacturers, and funds will most likely be restored in the next few years. [5] In fact, military expenditures in Israeli currency will actually increase by 11.24 billion shekels in fiscal 1980 compared to fiscal 1979. [6] The index of military expenditures in Israeli currency (excluding imports) is now at the highest point since 1971. The size of Israel’s army will not be reduced, and there will be a 3 percent increase in the number of persons employed by the Ministry of Defense. [7] In sum, these are a clear statement that the Israeli military high command and a significant part of the civilian political leadership do not believe the Camp David agreements have brought about peace.

Chief of Staff Rafael Eitan has been quite explicit in contending that the treaty has not created conditions permitting an Israeli reduction of military capacity. The day after the signing of the treaty Eitan spoke before a unit of paratrooper trainees:

We have seen in the past and this will prove itself also in the future that the stronger…will be the one who will have a state here. We have only begun to establish the state. We have not finished yet…. We have to educate the nation to obey orders to build a state, to behave and to organize as it should…. Without other things one can exist, without power, never. The power is both moral and physical_It is only power which defends us and allows us to live in the state, and in order that we shall have power, we must make efforts, sweat, to be better, more powerful, more professional. There is no substitute for this. [8]

Although many former Israeli generals have entered political life (Moshe Dayan, Yitzak Rabin, Ezer Weizman, Ariel Sharon), active-duty officers normally refrain from making such provocative political pronouncements or public criticism of the civilian government. But Rafael Eitan has boldly expressed his opinions on a wide spectrum of political questions. In addition to his suggestion that Israel adopt an emergency economy, he has announced that he favors banning strikes and lowering wages. He viciously criticized Israeli television for allegedly devoting 80 percent of its time to the Palestinians. [9] (This is a fine example of the “big lie” technique. Coverage of Palestinians in any capacity other than as “terrorists” is, in fact, miniscule.) Eitan has also taken it upon himself to restructure Israel’s military justice system. Despite intense criticism from many Israeli public figures, Eitan has on several occasions used his authority as chief of staff to reduce sharply sentences of soldiers and officers convicted by military courts of murdering and torturing Palestinian and Lebanese civilians. [10]

Rafael Eitan’s political pronouncements have played a significant role in legitimizing the extreme chauvinist sentiments of Gush Emunim and other fanatic elements of the Zionist right wing. Gush Emunim has other supporters in both the Ministry of Defense and the army. Deputy Minister of Defense Mordechai Tzipori was a fervent and outspoken partisan of Gush Emunim until be became convinced that some of their more outrageous antics actually impeded the progress of expanding Jewish settlements.

In recent months the army has been implicated in perpetrating or covering up acts of terror by Jewish settlers on the occupied West Bank. The army’s failure to locate and bring to trial the perpetrators of the June bombings of the mayors of Nablus, al-Bira and al-Khalil (Hebron) has been interpreted by many Palestinians and Israeli critics of the Begin government as an indication that army personnel were in some way involved in the attacks. Active duty soldiers played a role in establishing an arms cache discovered on the roof of a yeshiva (religious school) in East Jerusalem following the attacks on the mayors. The political statements of Eitan and Tzipori and the suspected involvement of active-duty soldiers in unauthorized acts of terror point to the possibility that elements of the IDF and their civilian allies in Israel’s fanatic right wing may actively obstruct any political compromise that a future government may negotiate on the question of Palestinian national rights.

The political situation in Israel today is far too volatile to make any clear prognosis for the future. That the army is dramatically increasing its economic and political power as well as its military capability should alert us to the possibility that the range of political alternatives in Israel now includes some very ominous options.

Author’s Note: Thanks are due to Israel Shahak for providing me with extensive clippings and translations from the Israeli press. Without these the preparation of this article would have been much more difficult. Israleft news service also provides regular translations from the Israeli press which have proved very useful.


[1] Jerusalem Post, May 25, 1980.
[2] Al-HaMishmar, April 9, 1980.
[3] Haaretz, September 17, 1979, quoted in Israleft 155, p. 2.
[4] Haaretz, June 2, 1980.
[5] Haaretz, February 18, 1980.
[6] Haaretz, February 18, 1980.
[7] Al-HaMishmar, February 26, 1980.
[8] Maariv, March 30, 1979.
[9] Davar, February 8, 1980.
[10] The most notorious case was that of Lt. Daniel Pinto who served only 16 months in prison for murdering four Lebanese villagers during Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in March 1978. See Israleft 155-158, July 15-November 15, 1979 for details.

How to cite this article:

Joel Beinin "Challenge from Israel’s Military," Middle East Report 92 (November/December 1980).

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