Voting blindly on war and peace in Gaza

The cabinet must make decisions while knowing only what prime and defense ministers choose to tell it.

September 22, 2014 17:51
Netanyahu and Bennett

Netanyahu and Bennett. (photo credit: REUTERS,MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)


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The frenetic pace of events in Israel often means that one day’s headlines are quickly eclipsed by the next. Yet it’s disturbing that one of last week’s biggest stories already seems to have vanished from the radar, because it’s one with long-term implications: During the recent war in Gaza, both the diplomatic-security cabinet and the full cabinet were repeatedly asked to make decisions while the prime and defense ministers were concealing potentially pertinent information from them.
The main antagonists in this story, Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon and Economy Minister Naftali Bennett, disagree about many aspects of what happened. But they agree on three crucial facts. First, throughout the war, Bennett was supplying the cabinet with information unknown to any other minister except Ya’alon and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Second, Bennett’s information – obtained from his own sources in the army – was accurate. And third, this information was unknown to the other ministers because Ya’alon and Netanyahu intentionally kept it from them. 
This inevitably raises ugly suspicions that Netanyahu and Ya’alon withheld certain information because it might have undercut the conclusions they wanted the cabinet to reach. But even assuming no such sinister intent, their behavior is unacceptable, because under Israel’s legal system, the entire cabinet bears collective responsibility for major decisions.
Granted, this responsibility is often delegated to a smaller forum, the diplomatic-security cabinet, which in turn often authorizes the prime and defense ministers to make certain decisions on their own. But even when decisions are delegated, the other ministers formally remain collectively responsible for what is decided in their names. And their responsibility is all the more obvious when they actually vote on these decisions, as they frequently did during the war on crucial questions ranging from whether to accept a cease-fire to whether to launch a ground operation.
Yet ministers can’t make intelligent decisions without receiving full information, which it now turns out Ya’alon and Netanyahu weren’t giving them. True, Ya’alon insists the withheld information was irrelevant. But at least one minister – Bennett – clearly disagrees.
Ya’alon also claims the information was withheld mainly for fear it would leak. That’s an understandable concern; some ministers are deplorably irresponsible about keeping secrets. But it still doesn’t justify withholding information ministers actually need to make a decision.
Such behavior would be particularly indefensible if the missing information related to the tunnel threat, as Bennett claims but Ya’alon vehemently denies. On this point, the available evidence is inconclusive. The diplomatic-security cabinet did vote overwhelmingly to accept a cease-fire on July 15, before a single tunnel had been destroyed; only Bennett and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman dissented. Two days later, after Hamas attacked Israel via one of these tunnels, a ground operation was suddenly launched with the explicit goal of destroying them. So it’s possible the ministers truly didn’t grasp the tunnel threat’s severity until that attack. But it’s equally possible that they simply felt Israel couldn’t afford to reject a cease-fire backed by both Washington and Cairo. 
The most disturbing fact, however, is that this incident doesn’t seem to be a one-time lapse, or even unique to Netanyahu and Ya’alon, but standard governmental practice. 
Former Shin Bet security service chief Yuval Diskin, who served under three prime ministers, wrote on Facebook last week that prime and defense ministers “have total control over the topics discussed, the agenda and the level of intelligence and information that cabinet members receive on different topics.” He consequently advocated creating some mechanism to ensure that all ministers have full access to relevant intelligence, but face stiff sanctions if they divulge it. Diskin, incidentally, loathes Netanyahu and misses no opportunity to smear him. So when even he defines this as a systemic problem rather than one specific to Netanyahu, it deserves to be taken seriously.
Nor is the problem confined to the cabinet: The Knesset, too, lacks independent access to information, making it virtually impossible for MKs to fulfill their duty to supervise the government. As Likud MK Yariv Levin noted earlier this month, “As opposed to other parliaments, we cannot impose significant sanctions on officials who do not appear. We cannot make them bring materials and information.” 
Indeed, the Knesset even lacks the power to summon a specific government official to testify: By law, a minister can choose to testify in place of any of his subordinates, which effectively allows him to decide what information MKs do or don’t receive. The U.S. Congress, in contrast, can summon almost any government official to testify and demand to see almost any government document, with stiff penalties for noncompliance, including fines and/or prison terms.
Over the years, various efforts have been made to alleviate the information access problem. The National Security Council (NSC), for instance, was created to give the prime minister independent access to security information so he wouldn’t be totally dependent on whatever the army chooses to tell him. But even when the NSC actually does its job (which it hasn’t always), it still reports only to the premier. Thus the rest of the cabinet remains dependent on whatever the prime and defense ministers choose to divulge.
Similarly, the Knesset research center was created to give MKs an independent source of information. And it indeed supplies valuable independent research on many topics. But as Levin noted, it has neither the resources nor the power to monitor government ministries on an ongoing basis. And it’s particularly handicapped in dealing with security issues, where much relevant information is classified rather than open-source. 
Levin, one of the Knesset’s most serious and effective legislators, is currently working on legislation to give the Knesset greater power to demand information from the government, similar to what other parliaments have. In light of last week’s developments, he ought to expand this bill to give the cabinet similar powers, along with appropriate sanctions for leaking.
Otherwise, we’ll continue to face a situation in which cabinets are essentially just rubber stamps for decisions made by the prime and defense ministers, because they are deprived of any information that might call the prime and defense ministers’ wisdom into question. 

Evelyn Gordon is a journalist and commentator. Follow her on twitter here.


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