Decision-making at times of war and peace

Former NSC chief Uzi Arad’s decades-long battle over the past and future of the National Security Council.

Former National Security Council chief Uzi Arad told The Jerusalem Post in a recent series of interviews that he has been fighting a war since the day he joined the Mossad in the mid-1970s. Not a war on behalf of the State of Israel against terrorists or Iran, but an internal war over the balance of power on national security decisions in the government.
Arad’s successor, Yaakov Amidror, when explaining his predecessor’s successful and aggressive approach to ensuring the NSC’s authority, noted that as he entered the NSC office in 2011, he “found fresh droplets of blood streaming over the gate.”
The fight over national security decision-making has never been more crucial, with Tuesday’s scheduled release of State Comptroller Joseph Shapira’s report on defects in decision-making processes and preparations for the 2014 Gaza war, and for Hamas’s attack tunnels.
Leaks of the report’s content have suggested it could put a massive dent in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s preferred image as “Mr. Security” and harm his political future.
As Netanyahu and the country stare into an abyss of uncertainty as to whether the report will bring down his government and wound him in a way that blocks his reelection, and whether it will impact the way the next war is fought, Arad’s story of fighting to establish the NSC may provide some much needed guidance.
In that respect, his Hebrew-language book The Struggle to Establish the NSC and Strengthening it at the Highest Echelons could not be more timely. Launched in January, it is about trying to get the national security decision-making processes regarding war and peace, the focus of the comptroller’s report, to work properly.
An anecdote in Arad’s book brings to life the metaphorical bleeding he endured to establish the NSC in its proper role, which he says is to manage the disparate parts of the national security apparatus in a way that optimizes the prime minister’s and the security cabinet’s level of information, strategic overview and view of their spectrum of options.
But the Defense Ministry, the IDF and others, and even some prime ministers have sometimes preferred more ad-hoc processes, either to retain institutional power or for political or expediency reasons.
In his book, Arad relates a key incident that took place while he was NSC chief: the way Israel confronted the 2010 Mavi Marmara flotilla, which eventually led to improvements in the use of the NSC for decisions on war and peace.
“The NSC plans were never brought before the cabinet. What happened was a hijacking of the process. Just one day before the prime minister [Netanyahu] left for France and Canada with only a day’s notice, he decided to convene a smaller group of ministers who just happened to be in the building that day, as proposed by his military secretary,” he recalls.
“He hastily convened the meeting of ministers, not of the full security cabinet, but a very limited group – even the foreign minister was not present for what was to become a crisis with Turkey that lasted years... and not inviting the foreign minister was against the law,” he explains.
“I was so disgusted by this sloppy event that I simply walked out of the room, and left my seat next to the prime minister empty in protest of what was to be a very flawed discussion of what became the flotilla crisis a few days later,” he says.
In a decisive moment, Arad recounts that “the prime minister called me to come back, and I said, ‘I do not want to come back to this discussion because it is being managed too irresponsibly.’ When the comptroller heard of the event, he gave very severe criticism of the process and noted my protest and even my walking out of the room.”
Could the NSC chief storming out on the prime minister be considered a success? Arad explains that after the crisis – once the UN and US got involved, and Israel had to change aspects of its blockade policy of the Gaza Strip – new policies put in place came directly from the NSC’s thoroughly vetted planning processes. He clarifies by stating that if many of the NSC’s ideas about the Gaza blockade were rejected before the Mavi Marmara, “my position was completely vindicated, with the government operating according to the proper rules” and fully using the NSC afterward.
He compliments Amidror on continuing with a well run NSC and decision-making process, including during the 2012 Gaza war, which did not lead to any commissions of inquiry. But Arad says that at some point after Amidror stepped down, “there was regression in the performance of the NSC” and in how Netanyahu handled decision-making, “and the results speak for themselves.”
What is Arad’s postmortem on the war and peace decisions as well as the decision-making process from the 2014 Gaza war? Noting that he can only refer to what has been leaked from the comptroller’s report, and wanting to save a final analysis for when the full report is made public, Arad pulls no punches.
“The thrust is that this is a very disturbing report. Something terribly wrong has happened in the higher echelons in decision-making and war-making bodies, according to the comptroller,” he states. “What went wrong was flawed processes in presenting intelligence, in a strategic assessment of the big picture, flawed discussions, and a flawed presentation of alternatives – in short, it was very flawed, and not because there was no alternative.”
He explains that the law “specifies what the procedures should have been and what essential steps should have been taken – all critical processes have been found wanting, and the results of the war reflect the flawed preparation and decision-making.”
Arad says the comptroller’s findings appear to be “grave” and say that “the security cabinet was not allowed to fulfill its duty. It is its duty to make decisions as the ultimate authority on war and peace – not the prime minister and the defense minister. The security cabinet is the supreme authority.”
He says the indications are that neither Netanyahu nor key officials in the defense establishment gave the cabinet “the intelligence and information it needed to understand the problems and the situation. They didn’t properly present the tunnels threat. This is a grave omission.”
He also contends that this made the security cabinet a “disabled group with no eyes and no ears,” and deconstructs Netanyahu’s repeated arguments, leaked through the press and in closed-door meetings with the Post and others, as “misleading.”
When confronted with reports that the prime minister provided a list of times where the tunnel threat had been on the cabinet agenda or was discussed, Arad bristles.
“So you found every time you said the word ‘tunnels.’ You can say ‘tunnels’ lots of times, but it wasn’t explained in detail,” he says, meaning Netanyahu.
“The comptroller’s report has essentially pulled the carpet out from under the prime minister on that claim. The presentations were superficial and thrown into a mountain of presentations.”
Arad also rejects the prime minister’s and the defense establishment’s claims that the length of the war had been appropriate. Asked if the 50 days of fighting was too long, he says: “Of course it was too long! It was too long because we failed to suppress their [Hamas’s] ability to fire because they understood we weren’t going to enter Gaza will full force, so they fired with impunity.”
He does not say exactly what he would have done differently, but his primary point is that there were a range of alternate options that were not considered both before and during the fighting. Moreover, he says, when the NSC runs the process and keeps the security cabinet fully informed, there are better results.
He says that based on leaks from the report, “the decision on the 2014 Gaza war was not based on a well-informed assessment resulting in well-developed operational plans.” Instead, “it looked more like stumbling into an escalatory process.”
That said, Arad does not spare the security cabinet members, saying there are indications that they were ill-prepared, and that many of them were too passive about demanding access to intelligence and the full picture. His comments are similar regarding the defense and security chiefs, citing indications that essentially all of the top officials had failed to properly present the tunnel threat to the security cabinet.
How should the NSC and the decision-making process work differently in the future? To fully understand Arad’s answers and the depth of his understanding of the issues, we must start from the beginning of Arad’s personal war to make the NSC work properly.
He joined the Mossad in 1975 and served initially as a senior aide to the head of the Research Division, eventually becoming head of the division some 20 years later. During that time, one of the major roles he played was in collecting and conveying intelligence to the various security cabinets and prime ministers.
Around 1989, under then-Mossad chief Shabtai Shavit, he served on a special “strategy staff” Shavit had established to consider the big picture. He says the members of this staff later filled the ranks of Israel’s first, relatively modest NSC staff, created in 1991 by then-prime minister Yitzhak Shamir.
Arad gives major credit to Netanyahu for upgrading the NSC as a more permanent and well-staffed entity during his first term, in about 1999. But from then until 2008, under prime ministers Ehud Barak, Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert, there were eight NSC chiefs – a sign that the ship was off course and no one wanted to stay in the job.
Efraim Halevy, a former NSC chief and Mossad chief, told a January conference about an instamce in which he hired a new NSC staff member. On the day this person finally came to work with a security clearance three months later, Halevy told him that he was quitting because he realized that then-prime minister Sharon did not take the NSC seriously.
(Former foreign minister Tzipi Livni said at the same conference that Sharon simply bulldozed through any processes to get whatever results he wanted.) Arad says that he helped the NSC make its final jump forward when he was its chief from 2009 to 2011, when Netanyahu returned to power. This included moving its offices to Jerusalem and into the Prime Minister’s Office, right next to the prime minister’s chief of staff.
He once again credits Netanyahu for being the power that helped his vision of the NSC leap forward.
Regarding his recommendations for change, a notable suggestion Arad makes is to “let the Foreign Ministry be the Foreign Ministry.” He writes that there are too many special messengers for the prime minister, and too many side ministries involved in the Foreign Ministry’s turf.
He emphasizes that the war for Israel’s legitimacy, a major strategic issue that impacts the country’s economic, diplomatic and military options, must be taken seriously and handled by professionals – meaning the diplomatic corps.
He also says that Israel must create a top, overall intelligence adviser who creates order among the many intelligence agencies and interacts with the NSC. Israel also must standardize multiple levels of inter-agency deputies meeting on issues managed by the NSC, as occurs in the US.
With Military Intelligence, the Mossad, and the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) more focused on immediate threats and responses, the NSC should be making sure all tactics and short-term moves match the bigger picture on national security concepts and goals.
Further, he says that the NSC should make sure that the budget and prioritization in terms of energy and focus will reflect these goals, eliminating random institutional fights over the budget cookie jar. He says it’s also critical to continue to update the country’s national security doctrine.
Livni agreed with this sentiment at the January conference, saying that during the 2008-9 Gaza war, the Olmert government merely reused many aspects of the 2006 Lebanon War strategy. This included failing to decide beforehand whether the end result should be deterrence or a deal, and failing to update strategies to changing circumstances.
This does not mean that the NSC is useful only for long-term issues. Even as the national security agencies perform significant short-term activities, it should be set up to immediately kick into high gear to efficiently manage sudden crisis situations.
Despite all his criticism, Arad is actually very optimistic about the overall historic trajectory of the NSC and the country’s decision-making in both war and peace.
He believes that most of the changes that he and Netanyahu undertook together – fully staffing and investing in the NSC in its current format, empowering it with running many processes and moving it geographically into the heart of the Prime Minister’s Office – are irreversible.
He regards the 2014 Gaza war failures and the current failure to appoint a permanent NSC chief as being within a spectrum of ups and downs, and not shaking the positive trajectory that has modernized the national security apparatus and made it more professional.
Of course, that optimism is, in a historical sense, for the country. Whether Netanyahu will still get credit from the wider public for his achievements after Tuesday’s report is released, the way Arad bifurcates the prime minister into positive and negative actions, or whether the report is the beginning of the end of his unusually long reign, will be clear soon.