The Justice Ministry is drafting new legislation that would empower the government to authorize the Security Cabinet not only to declare war, but to launch overt and clandestine military operations.
Reactions in the media and public have been mixed. Some raise real concerns and ask whether it is appropriate in a democracy to take from the government, even if it’s large and clumsy, the authority to make the nation’s most important decision ‒ to make war ‒ and leave it, instead, in the hands of a small group of ministers. Others ask who will guarantee that ministers with military experience and background will act wisely and have better common sense and judgment than “ordinary” ministers?
To illustrate this point, it is worth noting that, in 1982, when Israel launched the First Lebanon War, which sank the nation into an unnecessary military campaign, there was only one minister, Yitzhak Berman, with no military background, who opposed the decision and warned that it would lead to an adventure doomed to fail. He proved to be right and all the minister generals who had promised an easy victory were wrong. There are other examples, as well.
Nevertheless, some of those who oppose the new legislation are reacting in a Pavlovian manner, immediately accusing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of a dictatorial tendency to bolster his power at the expense of the government.
The truth and reality are more complex. The new legislation is not a whim of Netanyahu who is under a cloud of police investigations, suspected of corruption. It is based on the recommendation of a special committee of senior officials – two of whom are probably not Netanyahu fans. The three are: Maj.-Gen. (res.) Yaakov Amidror, a former head of the National Security Council (NSC); lawyer Josef Chechanover, a former director general of the Foreign Ministry; and Maj.-Gen. (res.) Yohanan Locker, a former military secretary of Netanyahu.
The committee was created in May 2016 following the refusal by Education Minister Naftali Bennett, who is also chairman of the Bayit Yehudi (Jewish Home) Party, to accept Avigdor Liberman as defense minister. Eventually, Bennett agreed to compromise if such a committee were set up to deal with his earlier request to improve and enrich the work and decision-making process of the Security Cabinet.
During and after the last war in Gaza in the summer of 2014, Bennett and other ministers accused Netanyahu, then-defense minister Moshe Ya’alon and the military of not providing the Cabinet with updated information, of shallow deliberations, and a negligible decision-making process, in general, and regarding Hamas’s underground tunnels, in particular. Some of the accusations were later confirmed in a scathing report by the State Comptroller.
The three-member committee recommended that to enrich the cabinet meetings, cabinet ministers should have better access to confidential materials and be briefed by senior military and security officials before the deliberations.
“It was the most useful political crisis I have ever initiated,” Bennett told The Jerusalem Report
, referring to the ultimatum he had set before the nomination of Liberman. “We, as ministers, are obliged to be prepared for deliberations on all matters, especially ones of national security.”
The Education Minister is also pleased with the committee’s recommendations dealing with the issue of declaring war and decisions regarding military operations; it concluded that the law is not clear on this matter and has to be amended.
Israel launched and declared all its major wars as a result of decisions by the full plenary of the government; all together, eight wars and military campaigns. Here is the full list: the 1956 Sinai Campaign against Egypt; the Six Day War in 1967 against Egypt, Syria and Jordan; the 1973 Yom Kippur War against Egypt and Syria; two wars in Lebanon, in 1982 and 2006; and three wars in Gaza against Hamas in 2009, 2012 and 2014. Even small, surgical military operations were approved by the government as was the case in the 1981 Israel Air Force mission that destroyed the Iraqi nuclear reactor.
Sometimes the governments were small and compact with 12 to 18 ministers, and sometimes, especially in times of a national unity government, they were very big with 20 to 30 members.
At the same time, however, some military operations, which had the potential for escalation were discussed and approved by the Security Cabinet alone. These included the 1988 assassination in Tunisia of Salah Khalaf (Abu Jihad), the deputy of Yasser Arafat, chairman of the PLO. This operation code-named “Hatzagat Tahlit” (“Presenting the Purpose”) was approved by eight ministers, while two abstained or objected. In September 2007, the Security Cabinet voted nine to one to authorize the IAF to carry out operation “Orchard” (also code-named “Arizona”) to destroy the Syrian nuclear reactor. Avi Dichter, now a Likud Knesset member and then-homeland security minister, was the one who opposed it.
The existing Basic Law that deals with the subject of declaring war is No. 40 ‒ “The Government.” It has two clauses that are, in a sense, contradictory. Clause A states that “the state will not initiate a war unless it derives from a government decision,” but clause B says that if it comes to “a military action that is needed to protect the state and public security,” a decision by the full plenary of the government is not necessary.
The Amidror-Chechanover-Locker committee interpreted the Basic Law as granting the Cabinet the power to authorize a war. Nevertheless, in order not to leave legal loopholes and controversy, the committee recommended that the Basic Law be redrafted in clearer terms. The new draft suggests that every new government meet and delegate the authority to declare war to the Security Cabinet.
Another even more controversial recommendation is that once the government delegates its power to the Security Cabinet, it may delegate the authority to a smaller group of ministers ‒ sort of an inner Security Cabinet composed of the prime minister, defense minister, foreign minister and another minister or two. Housing and Construction Minister Yoav Galant, who is a member of the Security Cabinet and a former general, supports the idea. He points out that during World War II, Britain was run by a small war cabinet led by prime minister Winston Churchill and four other ministers. “What was good for Britain is good enough for us,” Galant told me.
The truth is that alongside official government bodies and the Security Cabinet, Israel occasionally has had parallel, unofficial organs with different nicknames, such as “the Kitchen” during the government of Golda Meir from 1969 to 1973.
Another such forum was known as the “Prime Ministers’ Club.” It operated from 1984-88 during the national unity government of Labor and Likud and consisted of Shimon Peres, Yitzhak Rabin and Yitzhak Shamir, all of whom had served as government ministers or prime ministers. They dealt with questions of life and death such as the decision to kidnap and not kill Mordechai Vanunu, who worked as a technician at the Dimona nuclear reactor and revealed the secrets of the Israeli nuclear weapons program to the British Sunday Times. The trio also decided which terrorists and scientists working on weapons of mass destruction programs should be killed.
The reason behind the committee’s recommendations is the desire to maintain secrecy. Leaks from government meetings that serve the enemy and cause serious damage to the state are a major problem, so the fewer who are privy to secrets, the better. Heads of intelligence agencies and military chiefs have complained in the past that they hesitate to appear before the government and share secrets with ministers because they have had bad experiences and the information was leaked to the press.
One of the measures the committee suggested to stop the leaking was that ministers undergo a lie detector test. Most cabinet ministers agree with the recommendation and are ready to be tested by a lie detector, but they have one condition ‒ that this procedure also includes the prime minister himself. Netanyahu, of course, opposes the idea. Still, Bennett said he would work to push it forward.
“There is no reason or justification that the prime minister should be excused,” Bennett told The Report. “He is the first among equals, but he is also a minister like the rest of us and subject to the same norms and regulations.”