A military coup is underway in Israel. This is the unvarnished truth. At the same time, there is an attempt to play with words in order to avoid looking the reality in the eye. The rebels and their supporters are employing euphemisms and resorting to linguistic acrobatics rather than stating unequivocally that there is insubordination among many Israel Defense Forces reservists. They refer to it instead as “ceasing to volunteer.”
This rebellion is widespread and extends beyond the petitions that have already been signed by thousands of IDF reservists (in active duty or not), the Mossad and the Shin Bet secret service. It also exceeds the thousand or more pilots, air force technical staff, special ops personnel, elite units, Unit 8200 operatives and the technological unit of the Intelligence Branch, military doctors and more, who have not reported for reserve duty or warned that they will not report if the government’s judicial overhaul legislation, which they call regime change, is passed.
A growing trend of so-called gray (or white) refusal must also be taken into account – i.e., reservists who avoid service on various other pretexts without labeling it as refusal to serve. Furthermore, the number of junior and mid-level officers – lieutenants, captains, majors and even lieutenant colonels – declining to extend their regular military service is also on the rise. This trend is of serious concern to the IDF Manpower Directorate, to the General Staff and the IDF chief of staff himself.
It’s more comfortable for all involved not to explicitly use the phrase “military coup,” but if the issue is to be effectively addressed, the reality must be faced head-on and called by its rightful name.
The rebellion in the IDF is made possible and draws legitimacy from the fact that “the people’s army” has been a hallowed ethos since the state’s founding – even if over recent decades this label has been far from apt. The statistics make this clear: half of Israel’s eligible population does not serve in the IDF.
The concept of the people’s army has helped all of Israel’s governments to rally society in support of the national objectives of building and strengthening the nation, and served as a tool for raising motivation and creating social cohesion. It has been used also as a tool for social and cultural indoctrination. Then there is the social militarization component, which influences appearances and may also be seen in the role the army and its veterans play in many spheres outside the military, such as education, health, finance and even culture.
These two factors – the people’s army and the militarization of Israeli society – are now being severely tested. A large portion of the people’s army is not willing to accept the attempt by the government, even though this is a legally elected government, to change the status quo and hastily pass its judicial overhaul legislation without broad consensus and without due consideration. They are rebelling, and justifiably so, in order to preserve Israel’s democracy. They are acutely aware that the values on which they were raised and swore to maintain in a democratic nation are swiftly being eroded, and are trying to prevent Israel from becoming a dictatorship.
Not all coups are alike
Military intervention in civil society is nothing new and is not unique to Israel. Historically, it has followed two seemingly contradictory trajectories that are actually two sides of the same coin. The first, and more common, is a military rebellion and seizure of power by a general or junta in order to install authoritarian or dictatorial rule. The second, of which there are far fewer examples, is a military coup for the sake of democracy.
The fascinating book “The Democratic Coup d’Etat,” published in 2017 by Oxford University Press, examines this very issue and poses thorny dilemmas that are also relevant to what is currently happening in Israel. The French term “coup d’etat,” writes author Ozan Varol, “brings to mind coups staged by power-hungry generals who overthrow the existing regime, not to democratize but to concentrate power in their own hands as dictators. We assume all coups look the same, smell the same, and present the same threats to democracy. It’s a powerful, concise, and self-reinforcing idea. It’s also wrong. ‘The Democratic Coup d’Etat’ advances a simple yet controversial argument: Sometimes a democracy is established through a military coup.”
Varol was born in Turkey and immigrated to the United States in 1998 at age 17. He studied planetary sciences at Cornell University and worked as a rocket scientist at NASA. He later went into law and is now a law professor. Reichman University law professor Yaniv Roznai knows Varol well and has participated in a number of international symposia with him, and he is the one who drew my attention to the book.
It traces the history of military coups for the salvation of democracy – from the uprising by Athenian sailors on the island of Samos in 411 B.C.E., through coups in Europe, Africa and South America. Varol also discusses the Turkish military’s role as a defender of democracy since the establishment of the Turkish republic by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, and the military coup to restore Turkish democracy that occurred in 1960.
He also elaborates on the 1974 Carnation Revolution in Portugal, during which officers who returned from the Portuguese colonies revolted against the dictatorial regime in Lisbon and established a democracy by popular consent, with very little bloodshed. This democracy also brought about the independence of the colonies.
Another, albeit much less convincing, example presented by Varol is the 2013 deposing of Mohammed Morsi by Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi and the Egyptian military, out of concern – or on the pretext – that he was about to institute a theocracy.
In the book, Varol identifies several characteristics of democratic military coups:
1. The military coup is directed against an authoritarian or totalitarian regime;
2. The military joins the popular resistance against the regime;
3. The tyrannical leader refuses to comply with the opposition’s demand that he cede power and the military responds;
4. The coup is organized by a military that relies upon mandatory service and is part of the civil-national fabric;
5. Having carried out the coup, the military arranges for free and fair elections to be held within a short period of time, and peacefully transfers power to the democratically elected victors.
Varol argues that, ultimately, the commonly held view that any coup is necessarily a bad thing, that by definition a coup is something that harms democracy and stability, needs to be replaced by a much more nuanced understanding of the term.