Israel’s Decision Making Process on National Security Needs an Overhaul

By Lauren Mellinger

(Re-published from BICOM.org,uk | March 3, 2017) Sirens sounded after rockets were fired into Israel from the Gaza Strip. The Israeli Air Force responded with retaliatory strikes against Hamas targets in Gaza as Israeli media reported the discovery of 15 new tunnels underneath the Gaza border. These events took place over the past few days but they closely resemble the situation described in the State Comptroller’s new report on the Israeli government’s conduct in the lead-up to, and during, 2014’s Operation Protective Edge. The only additions are the recent election of hard-line militant Yahya Sinwar to serve as Hamas’s new leader in the Gaza Strip and the public focus on Hamas tunnels. With the threat of another war looming, what happened in 2014 is relevant to what happens now.

Operation Protective Edge lasted 51 days, resulting in the death of 74 Israelis, and more than 2,000 casualties in Gaza (Palestinian and Israeli authorities continue to dispute exactly how many of those were Hamas fighters ), as well as further deterioration of Gaza’s infrastructure. According to the State Comptroller Yosef Shapira’s audit of the government’s preparation and conduct leading up to and during the war, not only was the war likely avoidable, but it was poorly managed and failed to achieve its stated goals, which, while not clear at the outset – another criticism found in the report – eventually focused on eliminating the tunnel threat.

The new report examines the tunnel threat and cabinet decision-making. It illustrates systemic flaws in the planning, preparations, and wartime decision-making processes of the security cabinet and the military.

The key findings in the report are as follows:

  • Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and then Defence Minister Moshe Ya’alon failed to present any non-military options to the security cabinet on the situation in Gaza andthe ministers rubber stamped the military plans presented to them. Moreover, the National Security Council failed to provide the cabinet with a range of opinions and alternative courses of action.
  • Though Netanyahu and Ya’alon considered the tunnel threat to be “strategic” and “significant,” the severity of the threat, as well as an updated threat assessment of the situation in Gaza, was not adequately conveyed to the security cabinet, and hence no substantive discussions were held about the tunnels.
  • Ministers lacked the requisite intelligence regarding the tunnel threat. As a result when the matter was mentioned in the security cabinet, they did not express a high degree of interest in it prior to 30 June 2014, and (apart from then Economy Minister Naftali Bennett) did not ask the military to present them with operational plans to combat the threat.
  • The failure of defence officials to present the requisite information to the cabinet ministers – thus creating a significant gap in their knowledge and ability to render decisions in an optimal manner leading up to and during the war – was not intentional, but rather a systemic oversight.
  • The Shin Bet and Military Intelligence (MI) did not coordinate properly with respect to the Gaza Strip, resulting in, among other failures, significant intelligence gaps in the lead-up to the war.
  • The security cabinet’s role and authorities remains ambiguous.

The report noted that during Netanyahu’s third term – from March 2013 through June 2014 until the kidnapping of three Israeli teenagers by a Hamas cell based near Hebron – the security cabinet held no discussions about the dire conditions in the Gaza Strip, or whether the failure to alleviate these conditions would provide an impetus for Hamas to commence hostilities. While Shapira has taken some criticism from members of the government, a number of his findings – particularly about the lack of cabinet discussions on Gaza and the Prime Minister’s utilisation, or lack thereof, of the security cabinet – corroborates with the findings from MK Ofer Shelah, based on his work on the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defence Committee (FADC), which began an investigation into Operation Protective Edge in September 2014. The investigation was never completed after new Knesset elections were announced in December 2014.

The flawed decision-making process depicted in the report was not unique to Operation Protective Edge. Israel’s Prime Ministers often prefer to engage with a kitchen cabinet rather than the larger security cabinet when it comes to decision-making, due to a fear of leaks and Israeli Governments consisting of multi-party coalitions and the cabinet comprised of the Prime Minister’s political rivals. Furthermore, the primacy of the defence establishment and the corresponding weakness of civilian institutions – such as the Foreign Ministry – often lead the government to focus on military options rather than giving adequate consideration to diplomatic alternatives.

Shapira’s report largely reiterates the hallmarks of a flawed systemic decision-making process on matters of national security that has existed for decades – despite the various commissions of inquiry and comptroller audits that, over the years, have underscored the need for reform.

Following the investigation into the government and military’s failings in the lead-up to the 1973 Yom Kippur War, the Agranat Commission found the independence in decision-making to be highly problematic, and highlighted the need for broader input from cabinet ministers on matters of national security. The 2008 final report of the Winograd Commission following the Second Lebanon War found “serious failings and shortcomings in the decision-making processes and staff work in the political and the military echelons and their interface” as well as “serious failings and flaws in the lack of strategic thinking and planning, in both the political and the military echelons”.

The military has internalised many of the lessons of Operation Protective Edge and previous rounds of violence with Hamas. In August 2015, IDF Chief of General Staff Gadi Eisenkot published a new IDF strategy highlighting the major changes in Israel’s strategic landscape, particularly with respect to non-state actors, while clarifying the IDF’s role in prolonging the periods in-between wars as well as defining the concept of “decisive victory” in an era of protracted asymmetric conflicts. Eisenkot also declared that the tunnel threat would be a “top priority“ for 2016, though as the news this week indicates, more needs to be done on this front to mitigate the threat.

The frequency of military escalation between Israel and sub-state actors over the past decade has led the government to strive to keep the focus on the achievements in each period of hostility – namely, “quiet” and the benefits of deterrence. Yet, while the military prepares for the next round of fighting and some improvements to civil defence are implemented, the requisite changes in the political elite’s decision-making process have failed to advance

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INSCT alumna Lauren Mellinger (JD/MAIR ’10) is a BICOM Research Fellow and a Ph.D. candidate at King’s College, University of London.