Military politicians have played a major role in Israeli politics, defense policy, and foreign policy since the mid-1950s.
These figures - former generals elected to the Knesset and then serving in Cabinet-level roles - have negotiated all of Israel's peace agreements with its Arab neighbors. From June 1967, when Israel finally had something that it could trade with the Arabs for peace, until the collapse of the Oslo process in February 2001, six military politicians had a major influence on Israeli defense and territorial policy: Moshe Dayan, Yigal Allon, Yitzhak Rabin, Ezer Weizman, Ariel Sharon, and Ehud Barak. The first three played major roles from 1967 to 1977 - the last decade of that era's Labor Party rule. Dayan and Weizman played major roles in the first Begin government (1977-80), and Rabin and Barak were leading contributors in the Labor governments of the 1990s. Sharon was a key actor in the second Begin government (1981-83) and in the first Netanyahu government.
If we examine the attitudes of these six toward Palestinian statehood in the first instance, and then to peace agreements with neighboring Arab states, we can gauge the relative difficulty today of pursuing various avenues for regional peace - and whether the Syrian or Palestinian track, specifically, might be seen as more viable.
Allon, Dayan, Weizman, and Sharon all opposed a Palestinian state. Weizman favored a policy of genuine liberal autonomy for the Palestinians that would have stopped short of independence. It's fair to speculate about whether Dayan would have changed his views on the Palestine Liberation Organization, as Rabin did, had he lived for another decade. But he did not, and we have little proof that he would have. Rabin's change of mind in the early 1990s led to his approval of the famous Oslo deal that Shimon Peres and Yossi Beilin were negotiating in secret. Rabin never publicly supported the creation of a Palestinian state - though close associates report that he was privately reconciled to Palestinian statehood. Sharon opposed Palestinian statehood until he became prime minister, and even then he only supported a state that would have covered some 42 percent of the territory of the West Bank - an idea that was completely unacceptable to any PLO leader. Barak agreed to a Palestinian state covering about 95 percent of the West Bank, but then spent the last decade of his political career claiming that he had shown Yasir Arafat was completely inadequate as a peace partner for Israel.
In short, only two of the six key Israeli military politicians were anywhere near reaching a viable deal with the Palestinians. When Rabin was in power, both Sharon and Weizman opposed the Oslo process. President Weizman called on Rabin to halt the peace process, and Sharon inveighed against Oslo and argued with Rabin privately to end Israel's involvement.
On the other hand, all six of these statesmen supported deals with Israel's Arab neighbors under the right conditions. Dayan negotiated separation-of-forces agreements with Egypt and Syria in 1974, as well as the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty in 1979. He publicly opposed the Sinai II agreement with Egypt in 1975, possibly because he was not the negotiator.
Allon supported the separation-of-forces agreements as part of the Israeli negotiating team and helped negotiate the Sinai II agreement. He also invented the plan for a peace agreement with Jordan based on a partition of the West Bank - a plan that in fact bears his name, but that Jordan always found unacceptable. In 1979 he opposed the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty after visiting Egypt and speaking to members of the Egyptian intelligentsia who opposed the peace. He also preferred negotiating with Jordan in 1974 to negotiating with Egypt a second time.
Rabin negotiated the Sinai II agreement with Egypt in 1975; voted in support of the peace treaty with Egypt in 1979 in the Knesset; and negotiated a peace treaty with Jordan in 1994. He agreed to a full Israeli withdrawal from Golan in the event that Syria came up with acceptable peace terms. Sharon opposed the separation-of-forces agreements and Sinai II, but supported the Egyptian peace treaty in 1979 as part of the government. He later opposed Netanyahu's negotiating a peace treaty with Syrian President Hafez al-Assad in 1998. Weizman supported Dayan in negotiating a peace treaty with Egypt in 1977-79, as minister of defense under Begin. As a Labor minister in the late 1980s and early 1990s, he supported making peace with Syria. Barak nearly negotiated a peace agreement with Syria in 2000, but public opposition caused him to hesitate. He offered slightly less than a full return of Golan to Assad, who was dying and worried about his son's accession.
Given this record, is it any wonder that the Clinton administration favored the Syrian track over the Palestinian track in the 1990s? The Syrian track lacks the complex issues of the Palestinian track: Issues such as the partition of Jerusalem and control of the Temple Mount; the "right of return" for Palestinian refugees; and politically sensitive settlements. The West Bank is also of much greater strategic value to Israel than the Golan Heights. While the West Bank borders Israel's capital and would bisect the country, Golan only commands the settlements in its shadow in the eastern Galilee.
Since 2001, former chiefs of staff have turned to Likud rather than Labor. Likud opposes giving up the West Bank for reasons tied to its core ideology. The best chance for peace is that a former general raised in a Labor home joins the Likud for opportunistic political reasons and then after gaining a major position and following in the party defects with his followers as Sharon did in 2005. As for the Syrian track, it is on hold until the Syrian civil war has run its course and a new government is consolidated. That could take a decade or more.
Thomas G. Mitchell is the author of Israel/Palestine and the Politics of a Two-State Solution (McFarland, 2013) and Israel's Security Men (McFarland, 2015)