Continuity and Change in the Social Background of Israel's Military Elite

By Barak, Oren; Tsur, Eyal | The Middle East Journal, Spring 2012 | Go to article overview

Continuity and Change in the Social Background of Israel's Military Elite


Barak, Oren, Tsur, Eyal, The Middle East Journal


This article discusses markers of continuity and change in the social background of Israel's military elite from the establishment of the State of Israel and the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) in 1948 until the present. This is done by analyzing an original database that we have created, which includes details on the social background of all 213 officers who were promoted to the ranks of major general (Aluf) and lieutenant general (Rav Aluf) - the two highest ranks in the IDF - and who served in its general staffduring this period. The article also discusses the interplay between the characteristics of Israel's military elite, on one hand, and Israel's process of state formation and inter-sectoral relations, on the other hand.

Recent years have seen a notable expansion in the study of Israel's security sector, especially of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), and the relationship between the civilian and security spheres in the state.1 However, among the many works dealing with these issues, very few focus on Israel's military elite. Among these studies, some present an overview of Israel's military elite and the changes it has witnessed in the past and is expected to undergo in the coming years, in view of broader political and social changes in Israel.2 Others, for their part, focus on issues that are pertinent to certain members of Israel's military elite, especially its older members, who consider themselves to be national heroes and who in the past had enjoyed the appreciation and admiration of the Israeli public but who now have to deal with physical and mental constraints related to their aging.3 Although additional works discuss the interplay between the changing composition of the IDF on one hand, and political, social, economic, and cultural developments in Israel on the other hand, their emphasis is on the IDF as a whole (with special attention to its combat units) and not on its leadership.4

The paucity of studies on Israel's military elite in recent years is particularly striking when one considers the pivotal role attributed to members of this group - serving and retired - in all aspects of public life in Israel, including its politics, society, economy, and culture. Indeed, many studies on Israel's civil-security relationship note the accentuated role played by the IDF's high-ranking officers in policymaking,5 as well as their involvement in local and national politics in Israel after their retirement.6 The accentuated role of serving and retired high-ranking IDF officers (and other security officials) in military-civilian networks in Israel, which either buttress or undermine effective civilian control of the IDF and other security services, has also been identified.7

The above-mentioned gap in the study of Israel's military elite is further highlighted when considering earlier periods in Israel's history, and particularly the first three decades after its independence.8 Indeed, during this formative period for the state and the IDF, quite a number of studies were devoted to Israel's military elite, and examined, among other issues, its members' social background, their process of socialization, and their second careers.9 However, more up-to-date studies that address these questions are wanting.

This article proceeds from the assumption that Israel's military elite is a subject worth investigating not only because of its long-term impact on the IDF, which is the single most important actor in the area of Israel's national security, but also on account of the pivotal role that its members have played in Israeli politics, society, economy, and culture since 1948. According to a long-time observer of Israel's civil-security relationship,

Israel's military elite is important not only because it deals with an important issue in Israeli society [i.e. security], but because it is inter-woven into the political elite in the "military-political partnership." That is to say that it is not a tool for implementing policy in the hands of the political leaders, but it is an element in the governmental symbiosis itself.

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