The Israeli Left’s love affair with generals

Eitay Mack

Mondoweiss  /  August 2, 2022

How can you blame Zionist left political parties for embracing Israeli generals, despite their assorted war crimes, when Israeli human rights organizations are doing the same?

In an interview with The Times of Israel website, deputy minister of economy and contestant for the leadership of the Zionist left Meretz party, Yair Golan, said, “The very term ‘leftist’ is belittling, there is no equivalent term on the right. It’s a bit like calling a dark–skinned person a “nigger” in the United States. It’s something designed to humiliate and trample on a person – We have to fight it”.

It’s easy to mock Golan for his latest delusional statement, were it not for this driving home the point about himself and his milieus – Israeli generals and the Israeli Zionist left camp.

It’s not by chance that Golan chose to compare himself to African-Americans who suffer from discrimination in the USA. Before his move to politics, Golan was the IDF deputy chief of staff. Just like other Israeli generals – Shaul Mufaz, Mosha Ya’alon, Benny Gantz – Golan seems to believe that he is destined to be king of Israel, or at least prime minister. Each day that passes without him being anointed is viewed as a serious injury, not only to his personal calling but also to his human rights. 

Golan knows in the first place that no matter what he says or does, he is granted the privilege of Meretz not resorting to political and personal attacks against him, since it’s clear that quite a few Meretz voters are happy their party finally has its own house general too.

While diversity in the US often entails the integration of women, religious, or racial minorities, in the Israeli Zionist left version, it’s about the integration of generals. Since the establishment of the State of Israel dozens of them have been receiving senior positions in Zionist left parties after they retired from their service in the military, or the Mossad or the Shin Bet.

Many fewer former generals have joined the right-wing parties. General Ariel Sharon was among the exceptions, but after several years as head of the Likud party he founded the center party “Kadima”. In contrast to the left–center parties, the Israeli right and former Prime Minister Netanyahu are usually suspicious towards the generals. There seems to be a fear of their political ambitions – their history of joining left–center parties after retiring from the military – and fear that they will pull a “shoot and cry” – express remorse for crimes committed under their command, thereby offending national honor.”

In fact, the right-wing parties’ fear of the former generals has increased in recent years, after former senior generals in the army, the Mossad and the Shin Bet expressed support for the political bloc that worked to replace Netanyahu amid the investigations and criminal proceedings against him.

And that’s why it comes as no surprise that former Israeli military chief of staff Gadi Eisenkot, under whom Golan served as deputy, has become the left–center parties’ much–coveted trump card for the upcoming election. He is touted as “honest”. 

What makes Eisenkot honest, beyond the branding work done for him by Israeli political and military commentators who are inflating the value of his public stock? All Israeli military chiefs of staff were responsible for war crimes against the civilian population in the occupied Palestinian territories and other countries, but not one of them is known to have been a thief.

Perhaps the meaning of Eisenkot’s honesty and integrity is that he did not shy away from taking credit for the “Dahiya Doctrine” – a doctrine that could be cut–and–pasted onto an indictment at the International Criminal Court in The Hague.

Eisenkot, as head of the Israeli military northern command, presented the doctrine in an interview with Israeli newspaper “Yediot Aharonoth” published on October 3, 2008. In the next confrontation, he said, Israel will expand the capacity for destruction it demonstrated in 2006 in Dahiya, the Shi’ite quarter in Beirut: “In every village from which they will fire at Israel, we will use disproportionate force and inflict enormous damage and destruction there. From our standpoint, these are not civilian villages, they are military bases”. Eisenkot was referring to the destruction of the Shi’ite villages in South Lebanon and a similar punitive method against Syria as well, in case of war. “This is not a recommendation. This is a plan. And it has been approved”. That is, Eisenkot prided himself on a scorched earth policy of using disproportionate force against civilian targets and infrastructure, while causing great suffering to civilians.

But how could one complain about the Zionist left parties when even Israeli human rights organizations seem eager to be embraced by generals? In recent days, the “Initiative for Security and Human Rights” was launched, led by a coalition of Israeli NGOs that includes, among others, Amnesty International Israel, which has in fact initiated this new campaign.

According to the coalition’s statement, “The Initiative for Security and Human Rights works to share knowledge accumulated by security experts and human rights activists in order to promote the understanding that human rights and security do not contradict each other, and in fact, in many cases the two even contribute to each other.”

Of course, in accordance with the Israeli version of “diversity”, former generals have been rallied to the flag. One of them is General (ret.) Amram Mitzna, who, despite his involvement in the promotion of a peace agreement with the Palestinians, was the head of the Israeli military central command during the first Intifada, and thus responsible for war crimes and crimes against humanity committed for the sake of its brutal repression. The other is General (ret.) Amiram Levin, whose delusional statements rival only those of Yair Golan himself. Both Mitzna and Levin are members of the public council of the initiative.

Although Mitzna is still popular in the Zionist left, there is a difference between his involvement in the political–public sphere, to promote a peace agreement with the Palestinians, and his adoption and integration into a human rights project.

Unlike South Africa or some Latin American states, the State of Israel is not in a post–conflict situation, following transitional justice processes and the work of a truth commission, in which Israeli generals have admitted their actions, apologized and paid an agreed–upon price. The Israeli left has no right to move on while the Palestinians continue to languish without justice and ongoing crimes are perpetrated against them.

Like numerous military figures, Levin’s business in previous years in the field of defense exports is shrouded in the secrecy provided by the Ministry of Defense. But at a conference for defense exporters and arms manufacturers, documented in the film “The Lab” by journalist and filmmaker Yotam Feldman, Levin lectures on advanced Israeli methods and weapons, and states: “Most of these people were born to die, we just need to help them.”

In 2006, Levin announced his support for Avigdor Lieberman and his party, while the latter was doing his utmost to promote a population transfer plan for Palestinian citizens of Israel living in the Triangle area. In August 2018, when Lieberman as Defense Minister stood alone in his support for a ground operation in the Gaza Strip, Levin took to Twitter to voice his support for the idea.

In an interview with Israeli newspaper Ma’ariv on December 16, 2017, Levin proposed treating Palestinians in a manner which could be interpreted as supportive of ethnic cleansing:

“I often say that if they violate agreements, the next time we fight they won’t stay here, we’ll throw them across the Jordan River. That’s how we should fight. We were too kind in ’67. That’s why the Golan Heights should also remain in our hands. There isn’t a single Syrian village left with real Syrians. There is no reason to hand it back.“

Levin later tried to run for the Knesset in the ranks of the Israeli Labour Party, but announced his withdrawal from the race in January 2019. The Labour Party stated at the time: “We appreciate Levin’s activities for the sake of national security. Instead of facing the voters, Amiram demanded a guaranteed slot on the list and was refused.”

It’s obvious what Levin and Mitzna stand to gain from a stamp of approval by the Israeli branch of one of the most important human rights organizations in the world. But it’s difficult to understand the rationale of Amnesty International Israel, which in recent years has been conducting a campaign to raise public awareness regarding the ‘revolving door’ of Israeli generals. Upon retirement, these officials – responsible for committing crimes against the Palestinians – proceed to become defense exporters and, on top of that, transition to Israeli politics.

In another case, Amnesty International decided to adopt a much stricter approach. In February 2021, the organization decided to deny Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny the status of prisoner of conscience, due to his past statements (the decision was reversed later).

To paraphrase the old maxim attributed to Jewish sages (Chazal) – “Tell me who your friends are, and I’ll tell you who you are” – one can note in our case: “Tell me who your general is, and I’ll tell you who you are.” 

Eitay Mack is an Israeli human rights lawyer and activist who is active in increased transparency and public scrutiny of Israeli security exports