Meir Ben-Shabbat makes decisions under pressure, with lives on the line

The National Security Council head shuns the spotlight but his impact is vast.

NATIONAL SECURITY COUNCIL head Meir Ben-Shabbat attends a state audit committee meeting at the Knesset in 2018 (photo credit: HADAS PARUSH/FLASH90)
NATIONAL SECURITY COUNCIL head Meir Ben-Shabbat attends a state audit committee meeting at the Knesset in 2018
(photo credit: HADAS PARUSH/FLASH90)
National Security Council head Meir Ben-Shabbat is no stranger to tough situations.
A 30-year veteran of the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency), Ben-Shabbat ran its highly touted intelligence operations in Gaza during Operation Cast Lead in 2008-2009.
He has also headed the agency’s Cyber Directorate, its National Directorate for Prevention of Terror and Espionage, Research and Policy, and – before becoming NSC head in 2017 – the Shin Bet’s entire Southern Division, including Gaza.
As a result, Ben-Shabbat knows how to make decisions under pressure with human lives on the line. He also knows how to work intensively for months on end.
SPEAKING AT a press conference announcing the new agreement for handling asylum seekers and illegal African migrants in Israel, at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem in 2018 (Credit: Hadas Parush/Flash90)SPEAKING AT a press conference announcing the new agreement for handling asylum seekers and illegal African migrants in Israel, at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem in 2018 (Credit: Hadas Parush/Flash90)
Yet at a recent closed meeting, he said that the last 90 days – when by virtue of his position as NSC head he served as the country’s coordinator of efforts to fight the coronavirus – were the hardest of his life.
This was not because of the intensity of the work, the difficult decisions that had to be made, nor because he had to coordinate between the health system, the intelligence community, the Finance Ministry and the legal system. Rather, the days were so difficult because they involved a crisis of a completely different kind, where the enemy was largely unknown and there was so much at stake: the physical and economic health of the country, and the fate of the most vulnerable segments of its population.
At that meeting, Ben-Shabbat deflected criticism increasingly voiced these days – as the first wave of the virus fades in the rearview window – that Israel badly overreacted when COVID-19 first came ashore in late February. According to this criticism, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu exaggerated wildly when he and recently resigned Health Ministry director-general Moshe Bar Siman Tov gloomily warned at an early press conference that Israel could suffer some 10,000 fatalities at the hands of the plague, and as a result sent Israel into full lockdown mode, crippling the economy.
At that meeting, Ben-Shabbat – perhaps the country’s top expert on Hamas – drew on his knowledge of the terrorist organization to stress his point that Israel had no choice but to take swift and dramatic actions to fight the virus.
If someone came and said Hamas was threatening to drop an atomic bomb on Tel Aviv, Ben-Shabbat suggested, that threat would not be taken seriously, and the person relaying that information would be told to take a deep breath and relax because the country is very familiar with Hamas’s capabilities, and as a result can pretty well fathom what it can and cannot do.
The same, however, cannot be said of COVID-19, a completely unknown enemy, he argued. So when independent studies came across Netanyahu’s desk – as they did during the early days of the crisis – saying that up to 10,000 people might die, those reports could not just be dismissed, because so little was known about the real capacity of the unseen adversary.
MONITORING the latest corona figures in his office (Credit: Prime Minister’s Office)MONITORING the latest corona figures in his office (Credit: Prime Minister’s Office)
LITTLE, TOO, is known by the general public about Ben-Shabbat, 54, who suddenly appeared on television screens at the height of the corona crisis in March and April alongside Netanyahu and Bar Siman Tov to issue new corona-related directives and restrictions.
“We’re still in a dangerous area,” he stated at a press conference on March 25. “All it takes is one day like Purim, or one local outbreak, in order to thwart all our efforts, and therefore we are obligated to continue with the existing limitations and follow all instructions.”
Although he has led the National Security Council since 2017, the same year he became Netanyahu’s diplomatic troubleshooter after Yitzhak Molcho stepped down, Ben-Shabbat has for the most part stayed off the public’s radar screen.
Say the name Meir Ben-Shabbat to passersby on the street, and most would likely give a shrug of recognition at the name – mentioned every once in a while in the news in the context of diplomatic meetings – but would be hard-pressed to say what position he held, describe his looks, or recognize his voice.
This, even though Ben-Shabbat is Netanyahu’s top national security adviser and one of his most trusted aides, placing him among those with the most influence over Israel’s national security policy: from Iran to Gaza, Washington to Moscow, and even the coronavirus, which in Israel – as elsewhere around the world – was deemed a national security issue because it represented a threat to the physical security of the Jewish state’s residents.
“I generally politely refuse to interview or take part in widely covered appearances, first and foremost because of the habits I acquired in my 30 years of intelligence work, where I found much wisdom in the sages’ words of praise for silence,” Ben-Shabbat said in a rare Independence Day interview with the local radio station in his hometown of Dimona.
It was no coincidence that one of the only interviews he has ever given was to that radio station, as Ben-Shabbat has a strong attachment to the city of his birth, even though he hasn’t lived there for some three decades.
The fifth of 12 children born to parents who immigrated to the Negev city from Morocco, Ben-Shabbat’s mother still lives there, and though he lives in the religious community of Mercaz Shapira where he raised his four children, he returns to Dimona often.
Dimona Mayor Benny Biton said the NSC head – who is the product of religious schools in the city and the Bnei Akiva yeshiva in Beersheba – returns each year on Yom Kippur to lead prayer services, and gives a “learned lesson in Torah” in the synagogue where his father prayed.
Biton said that Ben-Shabbat kept such a low profile for so long that on the first Yom Kippur after he was appointed NSC head, and after his biography appeared in brief notices in the press, synagogue congregants were stunned to realize he was a senior Shin Bet officer, reaching the equivalent rank in the organization to that of an IDF major-general. Everyone thought he was a teacher, maybe a principal of a religious school, Biton said.
That is not too far a stretch, as Ben-Shabbat is very well-versed in Torah knowledge, and very much looks and dresses the part of an educator in a state religious school.
One former government official who worked closely with the NSC head for years said there is a dissonance between how he looks, his career path and the jobs he has filled.
“His appearance is deceiving,” the official commented, adding that this leads people to often underestimate him at first. “He is short, has a big kippah, looks a bit like a yeshiva student. His appearance is very non-threatening and does not make him seem overly determined. But then you see how he works and you quickly realize that appearance is deceptive.”
Ben-Shabbat is the 10th permanent head of the National Security Council (it has also had three temporary heads), a body set up in 1999 to better coordinate between all the governmental institutions dealing with national security issues, and to serve as a planning branch for the Prime Minister’s Office and the security cabinet. One of its primary duties is to integrate the wealth of information coming from different bodies on various national security issues and present it to the security cabinet so the ministers can make knowledgeable decisions, as well as to translate government decisions into operational directives for the various ministers.
For example, if the government decides to stem a tide of migrants coming from Africa, the job of the NSC is to translate this into orders that are then given to each of the myriad agencies which have to carry out the policy.
Ben-Shabbat took over in 2017 at a particularly difficult time for the agency; it had been without a permanent head since its previous chief, Yossi Cohen, left and went to lead the Mossad in 2016, after one nominee to replace him – Avriel Bar-Yosef – was shot down because of involvement in Case 3000 having to do with kickbacks for a major German submarine contract, and after the state comptroller wrote in his 2016 report on Operation Protective Edge that the NSC did not bring enough options and alternate plans of action to the security cabinet.
One of the first things Ben-Shabbat did was to set about reorganizing the agency, bringing in a number of people he worked with in the Shin Bet and creating new departments, such as one to deal with technology and another to focus on domestic issues such as the Israeli Arab community.
BEN-SHABBAT WAS the first NSC head to come from the Shin Bet. Four of the previous nine had come from the Mossad, two from Military Intelligence, two from the senior ranks of the IDF, and one – David Ivri – from the Israel Air Force, where he had been a commander.
National Security Council head Meir Ben-Shabbat meets with US President Donald Trump (Credit: White House Photographer)National Security Council head Meir Ben-Shabbat meets with US President Donald Trump (Credit: White House Photographer)
One former NSC official said the Shin Bet – an organization whose focus is not on international relations but rather thwarting terrorist attacks against Israelis – is not necessarily the natural hunting grounds in which to look for an NSC leader. Generally the Mossad and Military Intelligence are the places to look, because senior officials there have a wider focus and been trained in seeing the bigger picture, not just zooming in on thwarting terrorism.
Until Ben-Shabbat, the trend was to bring in officials who were “grand strategic thinkers.”
Ben-Shabbat did not fit that mold. “He is 100 percent the product of the Shin Bet,” the former official said. “He is extremely intelligent and has a very open mind, and his intellectual acumen makes up for any lack of experience with the wider world.”
Ben-Shabbat entered the Shin Bet soon after finishing his compulsory army stint, where he served in the Givati Brigade and received a number of citations, including the President’s Award for Excellence. He also has a BA in political science from Bar-Ilan University.
Yarden Vatikay, who spent a decade in the Prime Minister’s Office as head of the National Information Directorate that coordinated Israel’s public diplomacy message, said that when he first met Ben-Shabbat, he was struck by his ability to think outside of the usual organizational boundaries of the Shin Bet.
This was in 2016, and the Shin Bet had just uncovered that a Hamas operative had climbed to the top of the humanitarian aid group World Vision in Gaza, and was allegedly diverting tens of millions of dollars of charitable funds from around the world for the needy in Gaza to Hamas terrorist and military activities.
The trial of the accused Hamas operative, Mohammed el-Halabi, is still ongoing. At Ben-Shabbat’s initiative, Vatikay said, the Shin Bet uncharacteristically initiated a very public rollout of all the information concerning the case, including a briefing Ben-Shabbat personally did for both the local and foreign press.
Generally, Vatikay said, the Shin Bet is concerned only with accomplishing its missions and taking credit for those missions, but not necessarily leveraging those accomplishments to serve the state’s wider diplomatic goals.
“I was very surprised after my first meeting with him at his decision to go beyond the Shin Bet’s regular boundaries and to make this all very public,” Vatikay said. “This did not happen a lot. From then on I gained respect for him as someone with the ability to go beyond the conventional approach” and look at a much bigger picture, one beyond the agency’s traditional focus.
Coming from the Shin Bet, with its narrow focus on terrorism, could have been a disadvantage for someone taking over the post, one former colleague said, but Ben-Shabbat “has what it takes intellectually to make that switch.”
One senior security official who has worked with several NSC directors said Ben-Shabbat has “by far been the best.”
“And this was a surprise,” he revealed. “I didn’t expect it. He has this look of a clerk. But first of all, this guy knows Arabs. And what was most surprising is how quickly he grasped everything – including the most delicate discussions between America, Israel, Russia and China – and how he handled himself.
“He has a great combination of being a real professional, and being without an ego,” the source said. “It almost seems like zero ego. [US President Harry] Truman once said that it is amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit. Ben-Shabbat embodies that. Because of his lack of ego, it is very pleasant to work with him, and because it is pleasant to work with him, things get done.”
Former defense minister Naftali Bennett, who was a member of the security cabinet from 2013 through this month and was very critical of the way the NSC operated during 2014’s Operation Protective Edge, praised Ben-Shabbat for his professionalism, and also noted that a key component of his success was a lack of ego.
“Even when there are disagreements – and I had disagreements with him – we dealt with it privately,” said Bennett. “He is just pleasant to work with.”
The sole time that Ben-Shabbat found himself at the center of a controversy while serving as NSC head had to do with an incident involving Bennett. As the government was falling in 2018, Ben-Shabbat was dispatched to meet with Rabbi Haim Druckman, an influential figure in the Bayit Yehudi Party who also lives in Mercaz Shapira, in order to get him to persuade Bennett not to leave the government.
Ben-Shabbat was criticized for being used for a political mission. According to officials who worked with him at the time, Ben-Shabbat realized that this was a mistake. It was the type of mistake that – despite three election campaigns since – has not been repeated.
Though Ben-Shabbat was appointed by Netanyahu, and is obviously loyal to the prime minister, he has earned a reputation among the ministers as someone who is able to balance the tension of being faithful to Netanyahu and the ability to build good relations with everyone in the security cabinet, even those without a particularly good relationship with the prime minister.
One of the lessons learned from Operation Protective Edge was the need for the NSC to provide the security cabinet with better information, and Ben-Shabbat regularly briefs those cabinet ministers, often on a one-on-one basis.
BEN-SHABBAT CAME to Netanyahu’s attention through his in-depth briefings over the years to the cabinet and security cabinet on Gaza and Hamas. His 2017 appointment came at a time when Gaza and Hamas were high on the country’s agenda, and Netanyahu was interested in having an expert on the matter by his side.
“He lived and breathed Hamas and Gaza,” one former colleague in the Prime Minister’s office said of Ben-Shabbat. “He is extremely knowledgeable about it from all the angles – diplomatic, security, Hamas’s relations with Egypt, Qatar, the Persian Gulf countries. Nobody knows it better.”
This in-depth knowledge of Hamas and Gaza, coupled with the fact that Ben-Shabbat is not viewed as having a left-wing agenda, has given him a great deal of credibility when presenting positions in the security cabinet vis-à-vis Gaza policy.
According to one government source, Ben-Shabbat has taken a moderate position on Gaza, and has been one of the major advocates of reaching understandings with the organization.
“He pushed for that very hard. But not out of naiveté. His knowledge and the fact that he is not coming from a left-wing worldview gives him credibility about Gaza,” the official said. “This is not [dovish politician] Yossi Beilin talking.”
One of the early criticisms of Ben-Shabbat’s appointment was that his English – while passable – is not that strong; a disadvantage when dealing with sensitive issues with foreign diplomats. He is, however, fluent in Arabic.
Yet the NSC head is surrounded by people able to translate for him. US Ambassador David Friedman said that Ben-Shabbat’s English level has not hurt him in his dealings with Washington.
Ben-Shabbat, Friedman said, “is well respected as an expert in his field [who is] very skilled at conveying fact-based positions based upon hard evidence and data in an organized and logical manner.”
One former government official said that Ben-Shabbat also benefits by having a good grasp of both the strengths and limitations of the National Security Council.
The NSC is an organization specializing in coordination between agencies and in integrating policy, but it is not good when it tries to execute policy itself. That is simply not its job.
“The NSC is no match for the army, and should not compete with it,” the former official said, noting it is important for the organization “to know its place in the decision-making and implementation process, and not to threaten others.”
Ben-Shabbat, the official added, understands this well and is smart enough not to pose a threat to other organizations and governmental bodies.
“He has no ego, does not think he knows everything, and as a result will not clash with the security establishment, as some other NSC heads did.”
The one area where there sometimes is tension over turf, the official said, is in the crossover between Ben-Shabbat’s job as head of the NSC and his role as Netanyahu’s chief diplomatic troubleshooter. There, as Netanyahu’s diplomatic envoy, he meets with the top aides of foreign leaders; people who because of their relationship with that leader are often more important than foreign ministers.
This, the official said, causes friction with some inside the Foreign Ministry who view it as infringement on their territory.
Nevertheless, the official said, Ben-Shabbat’s levelheaded and amiable demeanor makes it possible to deal with these tensions.
“Sure there is friction from time to time, but he deals with it in a pleasant manner. He doesn’t give off the sense that he is trying to build an empire at anyone else’s expense, but rather that he just wants to solve problems.”
And that is a valuable trait to have in as head of the National Security Council, and certainly one of the reasons Ben-Shabbat has lasted in this job – some three years – longer than any of his predecessors.