National Security Decision-Making in Israel: Improving the Process

By Freilich, Charles D. | The Middle East Journal, Spring 2013 | Go to article overview

National Security Decision-Making in Israel: Improving the Process


Freilich, Charles D., The Middle East Journal


National security decision-making has been at the forefront of Israeli life for over six decades. Repeated wars, ongoing hostilities at lower levels, the need to confront dire and even existential threats, and various peace initiatives have all imbued Israel's national security decisions with unusual importance. Traditionally held to be primarily reactive in character, Israeli decision-making has become increasingly proactive in recent decades. At the same time, many of the diplomatic and military initiatives Israel has undertaken have gone awry, and the number of policy failures has become untenable. Indeed, Israel has suffered from a decades-long domestic political stalemate - arguably a crisis - on matters of its fundamental existence, including the Palestinian issue, with the political system unable to resolve the contending currents of opinion.

Although a very small nation, Israel has a clearly disproportionate impact on world affairs, and its decision-making processes are thus of considerable concern to the United States and the international community as a whole. Despite a uniquely close relationship with the US based on common democratic systems, cultural traditions, and a resulting bilateral presumption of mutual understanding, the reality is that relations between the US and Israel are rife with misunderstandings.

Understanding Israel's decision-making process (DMP) is thus essential. This article briefly presents the driving forces behind the Israeli DMP and argues that Israel can no longer afford the failings of its own decision-making processes. It concludes with recommendations for reforms needed primarily on the institutional level, but the electoral as well.

Earlier research1 has established that Israel's national security decision-making processes are shaped largely by three causal factors: first, a uniquely harsh and dangerous external environment, characterized by rapid and sweeping change and only limited malleability, which greatly shapes and circumscribes Israel's national security choices; second, Israel's proportional representation (PR) system, which causes deep political fragmentation and a resulting need to govern through coalition governments, with clear consequences for the roles of the premier and cabinet; and finally, the relative weakness of the primary civilian national security organs (the foreign and defense ministries and the National Security Staff2) in the national DMP, compared to the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) and intelligence services.

These causal factors were found to result in ten primary characteristics and pathologies:

(1) The Israeli DMP is focused overwhelmingly on the short term and is often improvisational and sequential. Long-term policy formulation is consequently minimal.

(2) Crucially, premiers manifest a clear tendency to avoid systematic policy planning, especially in the cabinet, but even more so in the Ministerial Committee on Defense (MCoD) and informal decision-making forums. Consequently, policy objectives, priorities, and options are typically not well elucidated, which greatly hinders Israel's ability to achieve its goals.

(3) The cabinet and MCoD are typically dysfunctional, and most real decision-making is thus conducted by the premier in informal forums with the defense minister, chief of staff(CoS), other senior defense officials, and, at times, the foreign and other ministers. Israel thus does not have an effective statutory forum for national security decision-making.

(4) By the time an issue reaches the cabinet, the premier and relevant minister(s) have typically settled on a preferred course of action and present just one option that can be approved or rejected. The creation of the Israeli National Security Council (INSC) in 1999 has partially alleviated this, but an insufficient consideration of options remains a basic problem.

(5) The DMP is intensely politicized, albeit less so regarding decisions to use military force.

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