Benjamin Netanyahu will complete his eighth (nonconsecutive) year as prime minister in March 2014, more than any Israeli premier except the state’s founder, David Ben-Gurion.
And as the years go by, unsurprisingly, Netanyahu is leaving a deepening imprint on the way in which the country is governed.
Turnover is relatively high among his innermost circle of advisers and aides, who frequently last as little as two years at his side and all too often, especially in recent years, leave amid a cloud of scandal and negative press. At the same time, the role of some of those advisers has become increasingly central, as the Prime Minister’s Office seems to be filling an ever-more influential role in national policy.
“There is an international phenomenon of concentration of foreign policy power in the hands of presidents and prime ministers,” noted Chuck Freilich, a former Israeli deputy national security adviser who has written a book about Israel’s decision-making process. And this consolidation has happened quickly in Israel, where the PMO now handles all major issues of diplomatic and security policy, including the peace talks with the Palestinians, the Iranian nuclear crisis and the most important of Israel’s diplomatic relationships, such as those with the United States, Britain, France and Germany.
In the PMO under Netanyahu, that sees a great deal of close consultation with key advisers, a notably expanded role for the National Security Council, and a changing structure of the inner “security cabinet” of top ministers.
It also means less influence for the individual ministries and ministers in some areas that used to be their exclusive purview.
When Netanyahu was finance minister under prime minister Ariel Sharon, for instance, it was he who recruited Stanley Fischer as governor of the Bank of Israel. When Karnit Flug was appointed Fischer’s successor in October, in a chaotic and protracted process, by contrast, Finance Minister Yair Lapid most emphatically did not exclusively oversee the selection.
Likewise, the question of Bedouin resettlement would in previous years have been a matter overwhelmingly for the Interior Ministry. Under Netanyahu, the Prime Minister’s Office has been centrally involved.
‘A dialogical personality’
Amid the process of consolidation, Netanyahu is said to be more open than some of his predecessors were to the views of trusted staff around him.
“Bibi has a dialogical personality,” said one confidant who asked not to be named. “He makes decisions in the course of discussion. He needs a conversation partner to make those decisions.”
Netanyahu takes a close interest in the views of those around him, confirmed another source familiar with the prime minister’s deliberative process. “He’s always asking questions, interrogating you for your opinion, and writing down what you’re saying.”
That aspect of Netanyahu’s personality is both an advantage and a crutch, the confidant added.
The advantage: Netanyahu is “flexible and thorough” when making decisions. “Every decision requires 10 discussions. He’s not hasty like some previous prime ministers.”
The disadvantage: “He can seem indecisive, fickle. No decision is final until it’s actually being implemented. Decisions often change in the course of discussion, both because his reasoning continues to develop and because those who know him well know how to focus their arguments to reach certain conclusions.”
Whether or not this personality trait is beneficial to forming national policy, there is no doubt it gives an outsize role to those who surround and engage the prime minister in those policy discussions.
As power concentrates around a premier who gives added weight to his advisers’ views, those advisers are becoming increasingly important for any understanding of how the machinery of power is managed and critical decisions are made in the State of Israel.
Enlarged role for the NSC
The shift of diplomatic and security policymaking into the hands of the prime minister is a global phenomenon. In part, this is due to inevitable changes in technology, Freilich explained.
“Foreign ministries face a real question. Why are they needed? Today, if a prime minister wants to know what the Americans are thinking, he calls up [Secretary] Kerry or [President] Obama. Foreign ministries don’t have the roles they used to have, where ambassadors on the ground were absolutely essential, especially [in light of modern] media and communications.”
The issues now handled in the PMO “don’t leave the Foreign Ministry with much of anything of consequence,” noted Freilich. “I think that’s understood by most people today. The Foreign Ministry deals with day-to-day caretaking and maintenance of relations.”
In order to effectively manage this workload in the PMO, Netanyahu has slowly constructed over several years Israel’s first policy planning staff directly answerable to the prime minister.
Founded in March 1999 by the first Netanyahu government, just three months before that coalition’s demise, the National Security Council struggled for a long time to find its place in the decision-making structures under other premiers. It received a significant boost when its responsibilities were anchored in law in July 2008, just in time for Netanyahu’s return to the Prime Minister’s Office in March 2009.
All former officials and confidants who spoke with The Times of Israel for this story emphasized the enlarged role Netanyahu has carved out for the National Security Council. Its head, the national security adviser, has his office just meters away from the prime minister in the Aquarium, the glass-fronted inner sanctum in the PMO reserved for the premier himself and his closest aides.
The NSC is now responsible for the highest-level contacts between Israel, the US, major European powers and even, more recently, Russia. It regularly communicates, officially and unofficially, publicly and secretly, with the highest levels of these governments. It even handles the high-level policy workload on broader issues of geopolitical import, such as Israel’s gas exports.
One recent example is telling. After the public spat between Netanyahu and Obama over the interim nuclear deal with Iran in November, the two leaders agreed in a December phone call that Israel would send a senior official to Washington to handle US-Israeli talks on the permanent agreement with Tehran. For perhaps the most critical and sensitive discussions on the issue Netanyahu himself has called his government’s number one priority, the prime minister chose to send his newly installed national security adviser, Yossi Cohen.
When he appointed Cohen’s predecessor, former IDF major-general Yaakov Amidror, to the top NSC post in 2011, Netanyahu’s public statement left little doubt as to how he viewed the position. Amidror, he said, “will lead the National Security Council as a body central to determining Israel’s national and security policies.”
The two national security advisers who preceded Cohen were former Mossad head of intelligence Uzi Arad, a noted expert on the Iranian nuclear question, and Amidror, who has written extensively on the security challenges posed by neighboring Arab states and Palestinian terror groups. Both are known as wide-ranging strategic thinkers.
But the choice of his newest adviser, a former Mossad number two, has raised eyebrows. Cohen is generally thought of as a keen operations man, say insiders, not a strategic and policy planning expert.
“Cohen’s predecessors all had extensive strategic and diplomatic experience,” said Freilich. “Ilan Mizrahi [who served for a year and a half under Ehud Olmert from 2006 to 2007] was, like Cohen, a Mossad operations man. But even he had some diplomatic experience by the time he became the national security adviser. Cohen doesn’t seem to have that background.” Even so, Freilich concluded, Cohen “is a very smart man and can learn.”
“Yossi Cohen is an operational guy,” agreed a source close to the PMO. “He’s very much about implementation. But that’s also part of the NSC’s work. It prepares briefing papers for meeting foreign officials, writes briefings, handles a lot of day-to-day diplomacy. A lot of foreign governments speak to the NSC.”
Cohen is one of a triumvirate of key national security advisers on whom Netanyahu relies on a daily basis, according to several sources familiar with the inner workings of the PMO. The other two are the prime minister’s military secretary, Maj. Gen. Eyal Zamir, and the cabinet secretary, former chief military advocate general Maj. Gen. (res.) Avichai Mandelblit.
Not all cabinet secretaries have been influential figures in recent years, with some chosen by the prime minister for their past loyalty or effective management skills.
But Mandelblit is in the room a lot with the prime minister, several sources said. “He has a quiet and low-key personality, but quiet waters run deep,” said one. “He is an expert in international law, so he’s in a lot of diplomatic meetings where you didn’t necessarily see his predecessor.”
With Mandelblit’s appointment in April, “the status of the post has possibly been enhanced.”
But the rise of the NSC has not occurred without causing friction with the other major national security advisory post, that of the military secretary.
Unlike the national security adviser, “the military secretary doesn’t have a support staff. He has one or two people working for him,” notes Freilich.
Freilich believes “there has to be a serious change in the role of the military secretary. He shouldn’t be in charge of preparing meetings. He has to be a serious strategic planner. Maybe the military secretary should become deputy head of the NSC.”
The NSC’s centrality is also highlighted by the fact that it took on most of the duties held by Netanyahu’s former adviser and new ambassador to Washington, Ron Dermer.
The US-born Dermer, who cut his teeth in political consulting as a Republican pollster in the United States in the 1990s, held a unique position at Netanyahu’s side as a political adviser, foreign policy analyst, and a key source of insight into Netanyahu’s main foreign policy target: the United States. He left the PMO in March and was appointed ambassador to Washington in July.
Tellingly, Dermer is not being replaced.
“Dermer was personally close to the prime minister. His job was to be the close adviser,” said one former official. “Now the head of the NSC is filling that role.”
“There’s no doubt Dermer had a unique role with the prime minister,” said another source familiar with the pair. “They had a relationship that predates him taking office. [Dermer advised Netanyahu from 2008, a year before he became prime minister.] Now that Dermer has moved on to Washington, different parts of his responsibilities were divided up. A lot of it went to the NSC.”
The growing centralization of policymaking around the prime minister is also highlighted by Netanyahu’s preference, like other recent premiers, for “external” advisers, individuals who are given senior policy roles but are not government employees. The two key external advisers are attorney Yitzhak Molcho and former ambassador to the UN Dore Gold.
While Justice Minister Tzipi Livni is the top political face of the peace talks with the Palestinians, Molcho is the personal representative of the prime minister. It is significant that as per Netanyahu’s instructions, the negotiators cannot meet without Molcho being present. A close personal confidante of the prime minister, who also serves as Netanyahu’s family attorney, Molcho has served as Netanyahu’s chief peace negotiator for many years, managing his contacts with Yasser Arafat during his first government in the 1990s, and again with Abbas since 2010.
Gold has a similarly long relationship with the prime minister, having served as a peace negotiator alongside Molcho in 1996-7, and then spending much of Netanyahu’s first term, from 1997 to 1999, as Israel’s ambassador to the UN. An outspoken activist — Gold has published three books in recent years about the radical ideology of the Saudi state, Iran’s nuclear drive and the future of Jerusalem — Gold has served as president of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, a conservative policy think tank in Jerusalem, since his retirement from public service.
Last month, it was announced that Gold would return to Netanyahu’s side as an external adviser. While Netanyahu has emphatically placed the peace talks in the hands of Molcho, US-born Gold’s experience at the UN and other international forums, his expertise in Middle East politics (he holds a PhD on the subject from Columbia University) and his knowledge of the United States suggest he will likely fill part of the role left vacant by the departed Dermer.
No survey of Netanyahu’s inner circle is complete without noting the looming presence, or at least the allegations of the looming presence, of Netanyahu’s wife.
Sara Netanyahu, a child psychologist, has been the target of scorn and criticism from many Israeli journalists and news outlets, and indeed won a major libel suit against an Israeli paper for its critical portrayal of her, a remarkable feat given Israel’s comparatively strict legal definitions of libel.
It is not always easy to sift through the over-the-top criticism, much of it generated by her husband’s opponents, to understand her precise role at the prime minister’s side.
There is no doubt she plays a central role in the prime minister’s inner circle. Netanyahu “listens to her on almost everything,” said a former official. “Not on Iran, of course, but on almost everything.”
Nor does he consult with her on peace talks with the Palestinians, said another source.
In fact, she does not advise the prime minister on policy, most former officials and observers agree, but rather on political questions. She is his self-appointed but much-trusted political handler and occasional media adviser.
“She’s very concerned with what happens to him,” said one source close to the prime minister. “She admires [Netanyahu], thinks he is practically a gift from God to the Jewish people and the State of Israel, and is very sensitive to attacks on him. She also follows the media carefully.”
Netanyahu’s outgoing chief of staff, Gil Shefer, made a point of involving Sara in all goings-on in the Prime Minister’s Office and in his political activities, sources said. Shefer’s replacement, the US-born Ari Harow, who is returning to Netanyahu’s side after having served as an adviser and chief of staff from 2007 to 2010, is also expected to make coordination with Sara Netanyahu a key function of his job.
The chief of staff role is larger than mere coordination with Israel’s First Lady, of course. But with Sara taking a keen interest in the prime minister’s domestic political position, and with the effective merger of a PM’s personal and professional lives once he or she moves into the Prime Minister’s Residence, it is not a minor part of the role, either.
What about the cabinet
Finally, Netanyahu’s decision-making process cannot be understood without examining the changing structure of his cabinet. In the last government, Netanyahu appointed a security cabinet — the committee of ministers charged by law with national security decisions — that hovered around 15 members. But he was frustrated repeatedly by leaks and indecisive debate in the large group, and decided to form an ad hoc “Group of Seven” cabinet that eventually expanded to become a Group of Nine. It was in this smaller, unofficial committee where real decisions and high-level policy discussions actually took place.
Netanyahu has applied that lesson to his current government. He restructured the security cabinet down almost to the minimum size required by law. It now comprises just eight members: Netanyahu, Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman, Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, Finance Minister Yair Lapid, Public Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch, Justice Minister Livni, Economy Minister Naftali Bennett and Home Front Security Minister Gilad Erdan. It is advised on an ongoing, permanent basis by two senior officials, Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein and — who else? — the prime minister’s national security adviser Yossi Cohen.
According to those familiar with its workings, the cabinet meets “very regularly” and is now the main forum where “the serious discussions are held.”
The Israeli White House
Many of these changes in the structure of national security decision-making at the highest levels of the Israeli government will likely outlive Netanyahu’s premiership. Indeed, the impulse to concentrate policy around the prime minister extends beyond security questions.
Netanyahu more or less openly acts as the nation’s top economic planner, taking a decisive role in appointing the new Bank of Israel governor and setting macroeconomic targets. Under him, key questions of domestic policy, including extending free public schooling down to the age of three, Bedouin resettlement plans and Arab sector economic development, have been brought under the umbrella of the PMO’s Planning Directorate headed by Udi Prawer.
Netanyahu, who speaks native English and was an early adopter of American political campaign methods into Israeli elections, has often been called Israel’s most “American” prime minister.
Whatever truth there may be in these claims of cultural affinity, there is little doubt the PMO under Netanyahu, with its advisers and policy planners and growing control over ever-expanding policy arenas, is looking more and more like Israel’s White House.