(photo credit: Courtesy)
New national security council chief Meir Ben-Shabbat may have a storied career in the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency), but he will still have his work cut out for him.
Can he bring order and direction to warand- peace decision-making following the state comptroller’s February report damning the NSC, the prime minister, the defense establishment and the security cabinet for mucking up the 2014 Gaza war? Advising the prime minister on how to settle or manage all the sides of the Israeli-Arab conflict would be hard enough. But Ben-Shabbat will also need to be the referee between the prime minister and the security cabinet; between the defense establishment and the cabinet’s politically- minded ministers; and between the often warring three major defense-intelligence arms themselves.
As has been revealed over and over again, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s security cabinet is not a group of allies brainstorming together about how to best realize their commonly held strategic goals. Rather, it is a place where he and his coalition partners battle – often to an impasse - and where his partners make speeches to create a record to later show they dissented from Netanyahu’s decisions.
Some top current and former Defense Ministry and IDF officials have found this oppositional dynamic so frustrating that they have called on replacing the political-style security cabinet with a cabinet of defense experts.
In introducing the appointment of Ben-Shabbat, Netanyahu said he was well-known to cabinet members from his Shin Bet service.
But it is far from clear if he will be ready to play umpire between them in an area where both the state comptroller and the architect of the modern NSC, former chief Uzi Arad, say the NSC has not properly kept cabinet members informed since 2013.
This brings us to the second fault-line that Ben-Shabbat will need to manage, but where he may be more qualified: striking a balance between the defense-intelligence chiefs and the political cabinet ministers.
As the Shin Bet’s chief in the South who has dealt with many Gaza-related security issues, terrorism issues and cyber issues, he is uniquely qualified to translate the defense chiefs’ views into terms the politicians can better absorb.
The comptroller’s 2014 Gaza war report accused IDF intelligence and then-defense minister Moshe Ya’alon of withholding key information from most of the cabinet. Two major issues where information was withheld were the scale of the tunnel threat and the probability that Hamas, given it was already under economic stress, would choose to escalate the level of fighting if pressured by Israel.
Ben-Shabbat was part of the Shin Bet team that warned of the stress Hamas was under when that view was mostly ignored.
If Arad, the comptroller and many others have accused Netanyahu and the NSC of pressing the cabinet into a policy without a debate by refusing to present the cabinet with alternative policy options, Ben-Shabbat may be more likely to insist on presenting contrary views.
This comes to the third management challenge: infighting between the IDF, the Shin Bet, the Mossad and the police.
The IDF and the Shin Bet butted heads over a number of issues leading up to the 2014 Gaza war. Just recently, the police butted heads with the IDF and the Shin Bet over whether to keep metal detectors on the Temple Mount.
Sometimes the conflict can be so severe that various agencies withhold critical data not only from security cabinet members, but also from rival defense agencies and the NSC.
Many in the IDF in particular would have been much happier with a former IDF major-general running the NSC, and Ben-Shabbat’s Shin Bet status could even work against him in resolving that divide.
This withholding has been highly problematic in the past because it can leave the NSC, the security cabinet and other defense agencies blindsided.
But possibly the biggest challenge to Ben-Shabbat will be shelf life. From 1999 until 2008, under prime ministers Ehud Barak, Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert, there were eight different NSC chiefs – a sign that the ship was off course and no one wanted to stay in the job. There has not even been a permanent NSC chief since January 2016.
Efraim Halevy, a former NSC head and Mossad chief, told a January conference a story about his once hiring an NSC staff member. On the day this person finally came to work with a security clearance three months later, Halevy announced that he was quitting because he realized that then-prime minister Sharon did not take the NSC seriously.
Arad and others also have said that whether Netanyahu takes the NSC seriously and allows it to empower the security cabinet is as critical as ever.
Whether Ben Shabbat succeeds or not at this tall order will have a major impact on fateful war and peace issues going forward.