Israel’s top decision-making body may be operating without legal authority

By law, security cabinet of top ministers cannot have more members than half of full cabinet, but with Yisrael Beytenu leaving coalition, it’s now a 10 to 19 ratio

Ministers in the security cabinet, led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, receive briefings from IDF officers while touring the Golan Heights, February 6, 2018. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)
Ministers in the security cabinet, led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, receive briefings from IDF officers while touring the Golan Heights, February 6, 2018. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

The inner cabinet of top ministers, Israel’s top decision-making body, may be operating outside the strict confines of the law after the resignation of defense minister Avigdor Liberman from the government earlier this month.

The panel, officially referred to as the security cabinet, is charged with guiding Israel’s foreign and defense policies, particularly during national emergencies, and is made up of top ministers, some of whom are appointed by the government.

The forum currently has 10 members, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who also serves as defense minister and foreign minister, as well as various coalition party heads and other senior lawmakers. However, according to the 2001 law that created the body, the number of ministers that can sit on the panel is not allowed to exceed half of the number of ministers in the full cabinet, which currently sits at 19.

The discrepancy was first reported by Israel’s Channel 10 news Sunday.

By law, the panel seemingly cannot operate unless another minister is appointed to the government or one minister is removed from the security cabinet.

The apparent invalidation of the panel took place on November 18, when Liberman quit the government over differences with Netanyahu on how to deal with ongoing violence along the Gaza border, including the way Netanyahu ran the security cabinet.

Taking his Yisrael Beytenu party out of the coalition together with former absorption minister Sofa Landver, the number of ministers in the government dropped from 21 to 19, but the number of members of the security cabinet fell only from 11 to 10.

Illustrative: Prime Minister Benjamin (c), Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, (r) and IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eizenkott, attending a security cabinet meeting at the Kirya, the IDF Headquarters, in Tel Aviv, on February 10, 2018. (Ariel Hermony/Ministry of Defense)

Netanyahu, who also holds the Health Ministry, has said he plans on keeping the Defense Ministry portfolio for himself and has indicated he may name another lawmaker from his Likud party as foreign minister, but has yet to appoint a candidate.

Under the 2001 Government Law, which created the panel, the security cabinet must consist of the prime minister, defense minister, foreign minister, justice minister, public security minister and finance minister. The government is also entitled to appoint other members to the body, so long as it does not exceed half the total number of minister.

In its current makeup, ministers Aryeh Deri, Zeev Elkin, Naftali Bennett, Yoav Gallant, Israel Katz and Yuval Steinitz are appointed to the panel, along with Netanyahu, Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan and Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (2nd-R), Education Minister Naftali Bennett (1st-L) and Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon (2nd-L) attend the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem on November 18, 2018. (Abir Sultan/Pool/AFP)

The inner cabinet is charged with launching wars or major military operations, pursuing ceasefires or other diplomatic initiatives and dealing with sensitive intelligence matters. Before its creation in 2001, prime ministers would convene ad hoc war cabinets during national emergencies, including Golda Meir’s famous Kitchen Cabinet during the Yom Kippur War of 1973.

It was not possible to get an immediate response from the Prime Minister’s Office or attorney general’s office.

While security cabinet meetings are closed to the public, their inner working came under increased scrutiny after ministers, including Liberman, accused Netanyahu of pushing for a ceasefire with Gaza based terrorists after a two-day flareup without taking a vote, and misrepresenting their views.

An unnamed officials told the Kan state broadcaster earlier this month that the Netanyahu government had failed to even inform the security cabinet of the official policy on military action in Gaza.

“The value of even holding a [security] cabinet meeting is zero,” the official told the broadcaster.

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