Intelligence File: Military need or political necessity?

Naftali Bennett’s demand for a military secretary is justified from a security perspective, but PM Benjamin Netanyahu will not want to provide his rival with any political glory.

Naftali Bennett (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Naftali Bennett
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman closed out the terms of a deal to bring Liberman’s party into the coalition this week, but one obstacle remains – Education Minister Naftali Bennett’s demand to appoint a permanent military secretary to the security cabinet, a demand on which he has conditioned his party’s support for the deal.
Bennett has argued that a military secretary would brief the cabinet ministers before decisions are made and would thus help to improve the quality of the deliberations. From a security perspective, the demand for a military secretary indeed seems reasonable. But because Bennett publicly criticized the decisions made by Netanyahu, by outgoing defense minister Moshe Ya’alon and by then-chief of staff Lt.-Gen. Benny Gantz during the 2014 war in Gaza, he himself does not come to the negotiating table with clean hands.
Netanyahu, who so far has refused to succumb to Bennett’s demand, believes that the education minister’s motives are political, aimed at eroding the prime minister’s authority rather than the refinement of the cabinet meetings.
Officially, the security cabinet, which usually comprises up to seven or eight ministers, is the most important body of the government. The cabinet is legally authorized by the entire government to discuss and confirm the most sensitive issues of war and peace, special intelligence operations and secret diplomatic missions. It is supposed to be an intimate forum, where its ministers can conduct an open and free debate and reach the right decision. But in reality the cabinet has turned into a kind of debating club and has been bypassed by a smaller group that makes the real decisions.
This privileged group has no legal or official standing but, for all intents and purposes, calls the shots. This is the trio of the prime minister, the defense minister and the chief of staff. Sometimes the chiefs of the Mossad and Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency), the head of Military Intelligence and the commander of the air force are invited to take part in the consultations.
It’s no wonder that the ministers of the security cabinet feel frustrated at being excluded from the real decision-making process while legally sharing the responsibility for the decisions made.
This is exactly what happened in the last Gaza war, and it infuriated Bennett and then-foreign minister Liberman.
But this occurrence was not limited to the Gaza war. Similar processes have taken place for decades in Israel. The country is known for its sloppy decision- making processes in a number of different realms, especially at the public and government levels. It’s the land of improvisation, and the military is no exception – although perhaps on a lesser scale. Many of the most important decisions in the history of Israel were made by small groups of the prime minister, defense minister and security chiefs.
The talks that led to the visit of Egyptian president Anwar Sadat to Jerusalem in 1977, for example, were conducted by Mossad chief Yitzhak Hofi and foreign minister Moshe Dayan. The cabinet learned of it only when it was already a fait accompli.
The decision to make peace with the Palestine Liberation Organization – which led to the Oslo Accords – was made in 1993 by prime minister Yitzhak Rabin and foreign minister Shimon Peres, behind the backs of the cabinet and even the heads of the military and security agencies.
The decision to invade Lebanon in 2006 and most of the conduct of that war were a prelude to the same processes made a decade later in the Gaza war (Operation Protective Edge). Prime minister Ehud Olmert, defense minister Amir Peretz and chief of staff Lt.-Gen.
Dan Halutz managed the Lebanon crisis, while the cabinet remained practically a rubber stamp to confirm decisions post-factum.
After the 2006 war, a special investigative committee, led by judge Eliyahu Winograd, criticized the trio’s conduct.
The government said that it would draw the necessary lessons and improve what was needed. However, eight years later in 2014, Israel was still suffering from the same handicap.
Very soon, the state comptroller will release his report about Operation Protective Edge and the decisions made by the Netanyahu-Ya’alon-Gantz trio.
Already, from leaks to the media, it has become clear that the decisions and conduct were much less than desirable.
The coming report will, in retrospect, probably explain why Netanyahu is now rejecting Bennett’s request. The prime minister most probably thinks that if he accepts the recommendation to appoint a permanent military security to brief the cabinet ministers ahead of action, it would be an admission of his own failures. Not to mention that the bad blood between the two is so deep that Netanyahu doesn’t want to provide his rival in the right-wing base with any sort of political glory.
Nevertheless, after the Comptroller’s Report is released, Netanyahu may say that he has studied and internalized the lessons – one of which, unsurprisingly, could be the appointment of a military secretary to brief the cabinet, in addition to his own military secretary.