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Analysis: This election, it's all about the Generals

FILE: Forme IDF chief of staff Benny Gantz speaks during the Herzliya Conference in Herzliya. Israel, Wednesday, Feb. 1, 2012
( AP Photo/Dan Balilty)
In 2019, when peace is an obsolete term and security unfulfilled dream, Israelis are opting for protectors.

Ahead of Israel's national elections this April, the quest to add army generals to most party lists running seems to be a strong motif of many emerging campaigns. The "let’s find us a General" craze has already reached almost all political parties -- right, left, and even ultra-Orthodox – but this phenomenon is most pronounced on the center-left.

Military orientation in politics is generally associated with the political conservative right-wing. But not in Israel 2019. It is the weakened center- left most desperate to empower itself with high-ranking army officers.

The most obvious example -- but certainly not only one -- is the courtship of former IDF Chief of Staff General Benny Gantz. Though the agenda of his newly formed Hosen L’Yisrael (Israel Reslience) party is yet unknown, all center left parties are eager to enlist him as the savior who can mount a legitimate challenge to incumbent Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

And Gantz is not the only sought after army brass. There's also former Chief of Staff and ex-defense minister Moshe Ya'alon, already veteran in political life, former Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi, who still wavers, followed by a long list of lower-ranking but not less courted officers.

This craze on left-center can be easily explained by the fact these parties find themselves in dire straits. So far, no real leader and not many voters split the camp. And yet the pursual of IDF brass intriguing given the erosion on the status of the IDF in Israeli public opinion.

Speaking to i24NEWS, Prof. Yagil Levy, an expert on army and society, agrees there is paradox and even a contradiction between the deteriorating image of the Israeli army and the search for Generals in politics.

Israel Resilience

"The most sought after Generals are not even war heroes," Levy asserts. "It is the recently retired Chief of Staff Gadi Eizenkot who turned the army into a political asset for the left-center camp. The fact that the army is again a source of nostalgic sentiment is not unprecedented; what is new is the fact that it is the military sphere that has become a fortress of fairness and sanity."

"The rift between the political right and the army turns the center-left into the great protector of the army; every attack on the army is perceived by them as assault on democracy. The restraint of the army sets moral limits to right-wing politicians calling for escalation in Gaza," he explains.

Given this explanation, it's a small wonder that former defense minister and leader of the secular nationalist Yisrael Beitenu faction Avigdor Liberman once complained the IDF Generals’ debates felt like a Peace Now board meeting.

According to Levy, however, the IDF is simply more operationally cautious than the rhetoric of some politicians.

“Israel's political center has zero trust in Palestinians but at the same time expects restraint and rationality," says Levy. “This is why the army is now the institution this camp can identify with.”

This is quite a turn in the last 15 years of Israeli politics and society. In two previous rounds of elections, journalists on party lists were the asset. Today it is the Generals.

“There was a real civil wave after the Second Intifada and the Second Lebanon War. Now, with all Israeli fronts active the military has undergone kind of a conceptual revival," Levy says.

AP Photo/Oded Balilty

In 70 years of existence, Israel had eleven Prime Ministers. Only three of them high-ranking officers in the army: Yitzhak Rabin, Ehud Barak, and Ariel Sharon. All others were civilians, including one woman Golda Meir.

High ranks used to add added a nice touch to political lists. But that is changing in 2019. When other institutions of democracy – the police, the judiciary, the press -- lose face or power the military becomes the natural hothouse for politicians. Even the party recently formed by Adina Bar Shalom, the ultra-Orthodox daughter of the legendary Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, has Maj. General (res) Gideon Shaffer on her list. It is a must.

The names of the newborn parties running in the 2019 election tell a complementary story. Gantz's party speaks of Israeli Resilience. Brigadier General (res.) Gal Hirsch, a newcomer to politics, formed a party called “Magen Israel” (Protector of Israel). Both reflect strength and force – apparently detected by politicians and political advisors as the flavor of the 2019 elections.

Center-left political campaigns were once mostly about peace and security. But both left and right have failed to bring both.

Just 13 years ago, even the late Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, a powerful military figure portrayed in history mainly as a warrior, ran a winning campaign under the slogan “Only Sharon will bring peace”.

But in 2019, peace is an obsolete term, security unfulfilled dream, and Israelis opt for protectors -- a role best performed by people in uniform.

Lily Galili is a feature writer, analyst of Israeli society and expert on immigration from the former Soviet Union. She is the co-author of "The Million that Changed the Middle East."

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