Can Netanyahu’s security cabinet rise above rubber stamp role?

Can Netanyahu’s security cabinet rise above rubber stamp role?

Will the new forum of 10 top ministers be capable of defying the generals, resisting the PM, and ensuring Israel is steered effectively in war?

Mitch Ginsburg is the former Times of Israel military correspondent.

IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz briefs Israeli cabinet ministers during the conflict with Gaza, July 18, 2014 (Photo by Flash90)
IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz briefs Israeli cabinet ministers during the conflict with Gaza, July 18, 2014 (Photo by Flash90)

The Government of Israel on Sunday green-lighted the appointment of 10 people to run the country in a time of war. These nine men and one woman are formally known as the Ministerial Committee on National Security Affairs and informally as the inner cabinet or “kitchen cabinet” — a reference to the war council that gathered in Prime Minister Golda Meir’s kitchen during the three weeks of war in October 1973.

In 2001, the decision-making body was formally recognized by law. It must comprise the prime minister, defense minister, foreign minister, justice minister, finance minister, and public security minister. It may not be larger than half the total number of cabinet ministers. But does it work? And do the personalities populating the decision-making body matter?

Former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert dismissed the relevance of the body in a recent Channel 10 documentary. Recalling the tipping point during the third week of the 2006 Second Lebanon War, when Israel was faced with the decision to either expand ground operations into a war-sized offensive or wait for diplomatic initiatives in the form of NATO troops to take hold, he said: “In the end, the cabinet is the prime minister. The prime minister doesn’t want [something done]…? The proposition does not come up [for a vote]. The prime minister wants [something done]? He passes the decisions that he wants.”

Furthermore, MK Amir Peretz, the defense minister during the war, told the same program that he announced at the time that he would adjourn the security cabinet meeting if former IDF chief of the General Staff Shaul Mofaz put forth an alternate plan for the looming ground invasion.

In fact, Mofaz’s plan, an arguably more coherent offensive than the one presented by then-chief of staff Lt. Gen. Dan Halutz, was never formally set before the decision-making body.

A May 26, 2015 meeting of the full cabinet, half of which serves on the security cabinet (Merc Israel Sellem/ POOL/ Flash 90)
A May 26, 2015 meeting of the full cabinet, half of which serves on the security cabinet (Merc Israel Sellem/ POOL/ Flash 90)

Former national security advisor Yaakov Amidror railed at the notion that the security cabinet is meant to suggest alternative plans of action. It is meant, he said in a phone interview, to formulate a notion of what it wants to achieve; to determine what the “picture of reality” is at the time, in terms of Israel’s readiness and the enemy’s deployment; to detail what the options are, weighing the pros and cons of each option; and then to reach a decision.

“And precisely for that reason the National Security Council was founded,” Amidror said.

Established in 1999, at the tail end of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s first term in office, and later rooted into law in 2008, the NSC is meant to brief security cabinet ministers regularly so that, when an escalation flares, the security cabinet can function as a skilled decision-making forum.

Amidror and former defense minister Moshe Arens both claimed that this is precisely what happens. Arens said that “there has been a big improvement over the years” and that the NSC does the staff work to prepare the security cabinet for war-time decisions, which often must be made under pressure.

National Security Adviser Ya'akov Amidror (right) seen here talking with IDF Chief of General Staff Benny Gantz (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Yaakov Amidror (right) seen here talking with IDF Chief of General Staff Benny Gantz (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)

In July 2014, though, on the eve of the Gaza war, the cabinet ministers arrived at the table with no notion of Hamas’s underground warfare objectives and no understanding of the IDF’s ability to battle Hamas, MK Ofer Shelah of Yesh Atid asserted in an interview with Haaretz’s Amos Harel in April.

Charging that Netanyahu treats his security cabinet “like an enemy,” depriving it of information in order to neutralize it, and that the ministers entered the room on the eve of the Gaza war in an “entirely virginal” state, Shelah said that the situation has not changed after the 50-day war.

MK Ofer Shelah of Yesh Atid (photo credit: Flash90)
MK Ofer Shelah of Yesh Atid (photo credit: Flash90)

After Hezbollah laid an ambush for Israeli soldiers in the Har Dov region in October 2014 — an operation that wounded two Israeli soldiers but showed a willingness on Hezbollah’s part to kill many more — Shelah said he asked several security cabinet members, presumably including his friend and party head Yair Lapid, whether anyone had convened a training meeting entitled “Today 10 soldiers were killed on Har Dov. What do we do now?” The answer, he said, was “of course not.”

The problem with the security cabinet — irrespective of whether one views Netanyahu as malignly domineering or a chief advocate of the NSC — is inherent in its composition. It’s comprised of political rather than professional appointees and it’s too large, said Chuck Freilich, a former deputy national security advisor and a senior fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.

Freilich, the US-born author of the 2012 book “Zion’s Dilemmas: How Israel Makes National Security Policy,” has been studying Israel’s decision-making process for the better part of a decade. In 2006, he wrote in Middle East Journal, “‘The Lord is our shepherd’ says the Book of Psalms, and fortunate this is, for no one else in Israel has the overall authority and structural capabilities needed for effective decision-making.”

Chuck Freilich (photo credit: Courtesy)
Chuck Freilich (photo credit: Courtesy)

Since then there has been improvement, Freilich said, but problems are still endemic. Other than being too big for quality decision-making — he suggested an optimal group of 6-8 ministers and not 10 — “sometimes you have guys there with no background whatsoever.” Moreover, material often leaks to the press immediately after a session.

For this reason, he said, the security cabinet, no matter how intelligent individual members may be, “is not really an effective forum.” Instead, in times of war, the army presents a plan to the defense minister, who shares it with the prime minister and, once the two agree, it is brought forward for a “pro forma debate” in front of the security cabinet.

Shelah suggested a rigorous training regimen, whereby security cabinet members must leave their ministries for one day a week and convene in order to work on contingency planning. The group should be authorized to summon former officials who have an appropriate security clearance and disagree with the current heads of the defense establishment.

Arens, when asked if he could recall a war-time decision in which the security cabinet overruled the prime minister, went back to the War of Independence. Ben-Gurion, toward the end of the war, he said, wanted to take the West Bank and was denied authorization.

Freilich said that Menachem Begin’s second cabinet denied Begin and Ariel Sharon five times before finally authorizing the invasion of Lebanon in June 1982. Once the war began, though, he conceded, the cabinet had little ability to steer the course of events.

In theory, this is “what the NSC is supposed to be there for,” Freilich said. But when the Chief of the IDF General Staff comes before the decision makers, “he’s got 20 generals there [with him]. They put maps all over the wall. And all sorts of highfalutin power point projections, and it looks very good and convincing,” he said. “It is hard to make another case.”

The new faces around the table in the 2015 Netanyahu security cabinet — Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked and Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, among others — will likely be hard pressed to alter this dynamic.

(The new security cabinet comprises Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu; Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon; Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon; Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan and Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked (all of whom must be members by virtue of their ministerial positions), alongside Ministers Naftali Bennett, Aryeh Deri, Yisrael Katz, Silvan Shalom and Yuval Steinitz (who will be replaced on December 1 by Ze’ev Elkin.)

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