Last week, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu revealed the identity of the new head of the National Security Council, Meir Ben-Shabbat. Newspaper headlines announced the appointment with colorful language and the prime minister praised him to the skies, and rightly so. Nonetheless, the question remains, will this appointment have any long-term effect on the status of the NSC vis-à-vis Knesset cabinet members and Israel’s intelligence and security organizations? Ben-Shabbat is a very talented person, there’s no doubt about that. He is modest and refined; his appearance is conservative; he is a bit short, wears a kippa and is constantly quoting from biblical sources.
And yet, despite all this and the relaxed way he speaks with colleagues, he is an extremely professional, determined and thorough person.
Ben-Shabbat began his career in the Shin Bet’s Southern Command, where he served for many years and gained considerable experience in intelligence gathering and management skills while dealing with the Palestinian community, with a special focus on Hamas.
Later, Ben-Shabbat served as head of the Shin Bet professional department in the Arab sector, and was responsible for preparing the intelligence reports for the prime minister, the Shin Bet and the cabinet on all matters pertaining to Hamas, Israeli Arabs and the Palestinian arena.
His professional capabilities, along with his high level of motivation and the great effort he has put into his work throughout the many years of his career, have led to a first in the history of the Shin Bet: Ben-Shabbat is the first officer to start at the “Desk” and then move on to lead the operational division. In the interim, he has headed a number of Shin Bet divisions, culminating in his last position as head of the southern region, in which he was responsible for fighting terrorism in the Gaza Strip.
Throughout the years, Ben-Shabbat and I worked side-by-side; he at the Desk, while I spent time in the field on intelligence-gathering operations.
During the Second Intifada, while serving as head of the Shin Bet chief’s office, I worked closely with Ben-Shabbat.
He was responsible for preparing reports upon which the cabinet would base many of its most important decisions. During his tenure, Ben-Shabbat led Shin Bet efforts to pressure the government to increase aid to Israel’s Arab sector, which was supported by two previous prime ministers, but unfortunately was never implemented.
As a result of this initiative, Shin Bet chief Avi Dichter succeeded in advancing a strategic move in which a huge amount of money was allocated to promote infrastructure in the Arab sector.
Ben-Shabbat is meticulous, thorough and well versed in the minute details of Shin Bet activity.
He can be stubborn at times and is known to maintain his stance in the face of objections by colleagues. And yet even in such situations, Ben-Shabbat makes his opinions heard in a courteous fashion.
The identity of the new NSC head is not, however, necessarily the most important element that will enable this organization to succeed or influence what will happen in the State of Israel.
Over the years, the government has neglected the NSC and failed to treat it as a serious organization that affects government policy. It was formed following the Yom Kippur War in an effort to rectify mistakes that were made during the war, although it was formally established only in 1999 during Netanyahu’s first term as prime minister.
Nonetheless, since its inception, the NSC has never played a central role in decision-making processes regarding security issues.
The organization was lambasted in the 2007 State Comptroller’s Report for dysfunction and lack of influence. In 2008, the National Security Council Law was passed, which for the first time guaranteed that the NSC would receive official functions and power, and its chief would begin functioning as the prime minister’s national security adviser.
This law enabled the NSC chief to hold meetings and discussions with all branches of the security establishment, to prepare work and recommend action plans, and to guarantee that the NSC chief would be involved in committee meetings with the heads of security organizations and key opinion leaders. In practice, this didn’t always happen, but the situation did improve, especially when Uzi Arad, who was a close Netanyahu associate, held the position in 2009-2011.
In recent years, the status of the NSC has improved slightly, mainly due to the closeness and degree of trust between its chief and the prime minister. In fact, the NSC chief has become the prime minister’s personal adviser and confidant on security issues. Unfortunately, this has not been translated into a change in attitude toward the organization as a whole, and the NSC is not viewed as an authority vis-à-vis the IDF or other Israeli intelligence organizations.
For the most part, the NSC produces instructive papers based on positions taken by other security organizations and rarely comes up with original, independent ideas regarding Israel’s security positions. Following 2014’s Operation Protective Edge, the state comptroller criticized the NSC for failing to offer alternative positions to those suggested by the other security organizations.
Although the NSC has remained part of the Prime Minister’s Office in principle, its offices are not located in the same building, and the staff is only allowed to prepare reports with information garnered by other organizations. In addition, the prime minister makes decisions based on top secret information that reaches him in discreet ways. One proof that the NSC has not been given any true responsibilities is the fact that a new NSC chief had not been appointed since December 2015. The office has been functioning with temporary leaders in the interim.
The challenge Meir Ben-Shabbat faces is threefold: • He will need to establish the NSC as a central and important organization in the security establishment, while positioning himself among the leaders of these organizations. Ben-Shabbat will most certainly need the backing of the prime minister to accomplish this feat, which appears less than likely to happen.
• A second challenge will be to make the position of national security adviser a significant part of the government’s decision-making process.
• And Ben-Shabbat’s third challenge will be turning the NSC into an organization capable of influencing public opinion.
The NSC has been facing these hurdles since its establishment, mainly due to the prime minister’s preference not to commit himself to the NSC’s recommendations so as not to be at loggerheads with the heads of the other security organizations.
This situation is not expected to change as long as Netanyahu remains prime minister, which casts great doubt on Ben-Shabbat’s ability to make any real change in the NSC’s status. But for everyone’s sake, let’s hope Ben-Shabbat gives it his best shot.
The writer is a former brigadier-general who served as a division head in the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency).
Translated by Hannah Hochner.
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