The Price Israel Pays for Its Poor National-Security Decision Making

How the country's "kitchen cabinet" style negotiations lead to foreign-policy blunders
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Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends a weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem on February 17, 2013. (Ronen Zvulun/Reuters)

Imagine this: Israel strikes Iranian nuclear facilities, destroying some and damaging others. Iran fires missiles back at Israel and "activates" Hezbollah on the northern border. Hamas, deciding this is an opportune moment, starts shooting its own rockets into the southern and coastal areas of Israel.

This is an entirely plausible scenario. It's also one that Israel expects. What's less clear is whether Israel has thought through the rest of the implications of a strike on Iran: the impact on the economy; the length of time citizens will need to be mobilized for military service; the reaction of its friends, allies, and neutral states; and how it will coordinate a multi-tiered response on all these fronts.

When Israel engages in a specific security policy without having adequately thought through the aftereffects of its actions, there are ripple effects throughout the region and beyond.

It's hard to have confidence in Israel's ability to plan for these non-military consequences simply because Jerusalem tends to avoid such planning. This is because of the lack of a strong, independent non-military decision-making body able to draw on the knowledge and expertise of all agencies of the government and coordinate a position that accounts for the various consequences that flow from Israeli military action. This, in turn, is due to the predominance of political conditions and the historical development of the country itself.

It's not just a problem for Israel. The country is positioned at the center of a strategically-important region undergoing a number of political and social crises. When Israel engages in a specific security policy without having adequately thought through the aftereffects of its actions, particularly given its reliance on force as a policy tool, there are ripple effects throughout the region and beyond. The country's difficulty in figuring out how to respond to the many crises around it -- the Iranian nuclear program, the Syrian civil war, growing Palestinian impatience with the occupation, and an increasingly-strong Hamas -- make this a more urgent issue.

The country's National Security Council (or, more properly, the National Security Staff), headed by a National Security Advisor (NSA), was created as a way to mitigate these pathologies. First established in 1999, it was given concrete form and legal standing with the 2008 National Security Law. A body composed of representatives of different ministries and agencies, the NSC is supposed to provide an array of options -- as opposed to specific recommendations -- regarding both the general security situations and specific developments as they crop up. It is, as Chuck Freilich has suggested , the best hope for making decision-making more structured, formal, and effective.

Unfortunately, longstanding patterns of decision-making, based on Israel's history, threat environment, and politics, have proved difficult to change. Israeli security decision-making is informal, secret (though sometimes punctured by leaks), and typically dependent on only a few individuals, particularly at the strategic level (tactical and operational decisions coming out of the security establishment tend to be more formal and systematic).

This process emerged out of the experience in the Yishuv (the Jewish community in Mandatory Palestine). The raucous politics that marked the voluntary institutions of the Yishuv, in which most groups in Jewish society were included, was simply carried over once the state was established. But with so many different parties clamoring to be heard in the political arena, security decisions could hardly be debated at length.

Strict and formal hierarchies never took in the small, besieged population of the Yishuv and then Israel. The need for most to serve the state in some capacity meant that political and military leaders were relatives and friends of each other, sharing living and political space and engendering informality.

The threat environment, in a context of regular war, cross-border incursions, and skirmishes with enemies, also militated against broad public consultations, including even in the full Cabinet. The public tended to defer to the government to make quick decisions on security without demanding public debates or accountability. This high tolerance for secrecy has facilitated leaders' perceptions that they are fighting for the state's very existence, therefore they can make decisions quietly and without much input.

The result has been an explicit decision by Israel's prime ministers to hold their own "kitchen cabinets" (the name comes from Golda Meir's tendency to hold small decision-making sessions with a handful of advisors in her own kitchen). Major security decisions were discussed in these forums, with the composition varying according to individual prime minister and need. David Ben-Gurion's decision to start Israel's nuclear program, for example, was discussed with Shimon Peres as Director-General of the Defense Ministry and Ernst Bergmann as chair of Israel's Atomic Energy Commission. Only once a decision is made or close to being made is it brought to the entire cabinet. This has been the tendency of all of Israel's prime ministers, though in recent years another tier in between -- a ministerial forum of seven to nine ministers -- has been added.

The process served the purpose of constructing short-term responses to immediate security threats and international affairs while institutions and decision-making procedures were still being worked out. But it could not be successful forever. As the state became more institutionalized and prosperous, and as the public increasingly came to eschew the collectivist ethos -- and thus came to mistrust government decisions more often -- a more formal process with more attention to the long term became necessary.

In recent years, cases of poor decision-making seem to abound. Two stand out: the2006 war in Lebanon and the 2010 attack on the Gaza flotilla. In both cases, there was confusion among government ministers, unclear strategic and to some extent even tactical objectives, and a lack of discussion about possible consequences of military action and its potential failure.

In the former, the Prime Minister (Ehud Olmert) and the Defense Minister (Amir Peretz) charged into Lebanon after the kidnapping of three soldiers on patrol along the border; even the Foreign Ministry was not informed about the first attack until nearly a day later.

Despite Hezbollah's increased wariness of antagonizing Israel after the war, Jerusalem was widely perceived to have fared poorly in the war: Hezbollah was not defeated and quickly re-armed, while life in northern Israel was disrupted as hundreds of thousands of civilians were forced into shelters for most of the conflict.

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Brent E. Sasley is assistant professor of Political Science at the University of Texas at Arlington. He blogs at Mideast Matrix.

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