IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot on Tuesday disputed a claim made by former prime minister Ehud Barak that army officers might refuse to carry out orders from the government if they considered them illegitimate.
The army chief did not explicitly name Barak, but from context, it was clear that he was referring to remarks made by the former politician and chief of staff on December 21. Barak had disparaged the government as advancing a one-state solution for the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, a step he termed “illegal.”
“Officials from the military and Shin Bet security service are required to refuse blatantly illegal orders. These people are liable not to carry out the orders that they receive,” Barak said at an event in the Jordan Valley.
Eisenkot rejected the allegation in a speech he delivered Tuesday on the IDF and its role in Israeli society at a conference in Herzliya in honor of one of his predecessors, Lt. Gen. Amnon Lipkin-Shahak, who died in December 2012.
“As someone who has served for 40 years in the IDF, I can’t imagine officers refusing an order because of policy. They understand their role and their subordination to the political echelon,” Eisenkot said.
During his speech, which was split between the external threats facing Israel and the internal challenges the military is confronting, the army chief also discussed a recent letter sent by dozens of Israeli high school students, who announced they were refusing to serve in the IDF because of the military occupation of the West Bank.
Though he noted that ideological draft dodging was not a new phenomenon, Eisenkot denounced the “group refusal” as a “challenge to what brings us together as a society and a violation of the law that requires conscription and mutual responsibility.”
The army chief acknowledged that there are moral challenges presented by military service, particularly in the West Bank, but encouraged those with such concerns to join the IDF in order to have an influence over them.
“The IDF didn’t ask to oversee the West Bank; that was a mission given to us by the political echelon. The army is subordinate to the government and doesn’t choose its missions,” he said.
He stressed that the army has a standing order, which “doesn’t [just] allow, but requires, soldiers to refuse illegal orders.”
The army chief also addressed ongoing fights in Israeli society connected to the military, notably the growing role of women in combat positions and the negative opinion of that development held by many religious Jews in Israel.
Eisenkot stressed the importance of keeping the army an apolitical body.
Last month, Eisenkot updated the army’s rules regarding mixed-gender service, in a move that had few practical implications, but was seen by many as softening the language related to female integration in the military.
“Some people say that the army is really being run by rabbis or the fear of rabbis. Others say the army is really being run by women’s groups,” Eisenkot said.
The army chief also referred to President Reuven Rivlin’s famous “four tribes” speech, in which he said the country was divided between secular, religious, ultra-Orthodox and Arab camps.
“Our goal is not to run the army as four tribes — as the president described it — but as one tribe,” he said.
Eisenkot also noted a change in Israeli society, which once saw combat military service as the “most meaningful” way to contribute, but now sees technology and intelligence units as being more significant.
“The younger generation has a different value in terms of what’s meaningful service. They think, ‘I want to contribute, but I don’t need to serve in the tank corps or paratroopers,'” he said.
Eisenkot said that in the military’s view it was an incorrect approach.
“The army rises and” — he caught himself before saying “falls” — “rises on its combat soldiers.”