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.

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.

The lack of broader analysis was highlighted in the Winograd Commission , the official Israeli investigation into the war, and meant to be addressed with the establishment of the National Security Council afterward.

In 2010, an effort to prevent the flotilla from breaking the Israeli blockade on Gaza culminated in the deaths aboard the Mavi Marmara of eight Turkish citizens and one Turkish-American. This, in turn, brought international condemnation of Israel, a sharp break in relations with Turkey (which, to be fair, was already in decline ), a United Nations investigation, and efforts to bring Israelis beforeTurkish and international courts.

The Turkel Commission, which inquired into the flotilla deaths, hinted at the same problems in broader planning that existed in 2006, because the NSC was absent from the discussions over how to respond to the flotilla.

The establishment of the NSC, then, hasn't served to mitigate Israel's decision-making pathologies. It continues to struggle to embed itself in a process that until now has been primarily informal, dominated by the military, driven by personal relationships, and obsessed with short-term rather than long-term thinking. Most policymakers and analysts do believe the NSC is needed to provide carefully-thought out planning. And things seem to be getting better, but only slowly, and only in response to events.

Because it is slow and iterative, damage is caused to Israel both physically and in international support each time it fails to plan ahead. As Oded Eran, a former member of the NSC put it, the government is "learning the hard way, through penalties" imposed on Israel for poor decision-making.

There are some things Israel could do to strengthen its NSC. First, in his positive assessment of outgoing American National Security Advisor Tom Donilon, David Rothkopf notes that a great deal of his success was due to his role "of honest broker among the many senior national security voices clamoring for the president's ear." The specific individual coordinating the Council's efforts matter, then.

In Israel, the choice of NSA has often been more political than anything else, selected for their closeness to the prime minister. This might seem like an asset, since it gives the NSA a direct channel to the leader of government. But it also means that the NSA either shares many of the PM's own ideological goals and political agenda (such as the current NSA, Yaakov Amidror)--in which case the purpose and expertise of the NSA is being undermined -- or it means the Council's analysis are contingent upon good relations between the NSA and the prime minister. When those relations break down -- as happened when Uzi Arad was NSA -- the Council is neglected.

But even when merit is the criterion, the pathologies inherent in the system can derail the process. When David Ivri was asked to leave his position as Israel's first NSA to become ambassador to the United States, he knew it was a political request. He understood, he told me, that he was a threat to Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordechai and Prime Minister Ehud Barak's decision-making autonomy. He didn't mean it in personal terms, but rather that his position as an independent NSA was seen as undermining the Defense Ministry and Mordechai, and the prime minister's office and Barak.

Still, a strong, impartial NSA known to the security community and liked by the prime minister is one of the most important ways the Israeli NSC can be strengthened. Someone who can speak to the various agencies in the government and genuinely coordinate information and analysis, and whose policy papers will be taken seriously not just by the Prime Minister but other ministers in the various cabinet forums.

Second, right now the NSC is seen as an alternate power source in a decision-making arena already filled with agencies and individuals fighting to maintain their autonomy and influence. This is of special concern when it comes to the security establishment and, especially, the Defense Ministry, both of which have long played an outsized role in civilian policymaking. The war that Israel was born into, and the several conflicts that erupted throughout the next decades, required military input into policymaking. That the military had to be so prepared also forced it to develop early on a systematic planning structure, and it remains the case today that the Israel Defense Forces and the Defense Ministry have the most efficient operational, tactical, and strategic planning agencies. Their input has been not just required, but necessary.

NSC members have noted that the Defense Ministry has been the least resistant to the NSC's new role, mostly because the NSC hasn't been successful. Some tension is inevitable -- it's the nature of bureaucratic agencies to fight for turf. The NSC will have to build on existing tolerance without trying to take over the Defense Ministry's role completely; it cannot hope to win such a struggle. Some dilution of the military's authority will be inevitable, but it should be done with tact and by ensuring the military is a party to the process the entire time.

Third, senior or ambitious civil servants and security officials will have to overcome their reluctance to be posted to the NSC. Shlomo Brom, a Brigadier General with considerable experience in security policymaking, said that before long, he was looking for a way out of the Council, mostly because its work was ignored. If good people don't work for it, and principals send junior representatives to it, its chances of being ignored increase considerably because it won't have the weight of well-known and respected thinkers.

In the meantime, Israel and the region can only hope that the consequences of short-term and narrow thinking are not overly grave.