Politics of war

Is it realistic to expect the security cabinet to function more effectively, given the current system of political rule in Israel?

The sun sets over the northern Gaza Strip as seen from the Israeli border, Israel August 23, 2016 (photo credit: REUTERS)
The sun sets over the northern Gaza Strip as seen from the Israeli border, Israel August 23, 2016
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The picture that emerges from State Comptroller Joseph Shapira’s report on Operation Protective Edge is one of a security cabinet that is divided by political infighting, power struggles and an utter lack of mutual trust.
The question that arises is whether it is realistic to expect the security cabinet to function more effectively, given the current system of political rule in Israel.
The state comptroller points to a disconnect between the security cabinet on one hand and the prime minister and the security establishment on the other. He recommends that in future the prime minister and the military establishment be more forthcoming in the sharing of intelligence information with the security cabinet. The report also calls on the prime minister and the military echelon to give security cabinet members more say in the decision-making process. It reprimands members of the security cabinet for not being proactive in demanding information from the military.
Considering the dynamics of our political system, however, it is difficult to expect an atmosphere of openness and trust that would be conducive to effective decision- making.
The security cabinet is a reflection of the cabinet, which means it is made up of ministers from different political parties who are often also political adversaries. Under these circumstances, the prime minister is wary of including political foes in the decision-making process, particularly when he realizes that he will be held personally responsible for failures. At the very least, there is an inherent lack of trust among members of the cabinet and between its members and the prime minister.
Tzipi Livni, Avigdor Liberman, Yair Lapid and Naftali Bennett were all on the security cabinet in the summer of 2014. All of them are political rivals with different political agendas and competing interests. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu conceivably viewed all of them as potential rivals for the premiership. Was it realistic to expect him to include them in the decision-making process?
Fostering an atmosphere of openness and sharing is made even harder by the distrust between the military establishment and the political echelon. Even if the law obligates them, veteran military commanders with decades of experience are loath to relinquish power to the security cabinet, which is made up of politicians with varying degrees of military experience. Instead, generals tend to provide politicians with a very narrow strategic analysis that leads the politicians to a predetermined conclusion.
The security cabinet is not provided with a variety of scenarios and operational options from which to choose. They tend to be presented with a single option and are expected to be nothing more than a rubber stamp for what the military thinks should be done. The military establishment thus insulates itself from outside scrutiny and leaves the politician echelon out of the decision-making process.
For there to be hope of improvement in the way the security cabinet works, there needs to be a conscious effort to neutralize inherent tensions that exist between the prime minister and the cabinet and with the defense establishment.
Despite all the flaws revealed by the State Comptroller’s Report, however, Operation Defensive Edge did achieve some of its objectives. Hundreds of Hamas terrorists were killed. Israel’s deterrence was restored for an impressively long amount of time. Only now, nearly three years after the operation, are we seeing it deteriorate. Attack tunnels were destroyed and Hamas’s capabilities were severely weakened, but Hamas has reportedly rebuilt about half the 32 tunnels destroyed.
Still, as in every vibrant democracy, there needs to be constant scrutiny of state institutions, including the IDF, the National Security Council and the security cabinet. Flaws and mistakes need to be exposed. The reasons for these setbacks need to be uncovered. And all branches of the state need to learn from these mistakes so they are not repeated.
Self-scrutiny, openness and a willingness to place national interests above narrow political interests are what make democracies strong. To that end, serious thought needs to be devoted to finding ways to neutralize the inherent tensions resulting from our political system, which have far-reaching implications for the decision-making process in the most secret of Israel’s forums, the security cabinet.