Israel’s Vital National Security Council

It was only on Netanyahu’s return to office that the National Security Council began to execute the function for which it was designed, in an attempt to avoid bad decisions.


By Moshe Arens

(A version of this column appeared in Haaretz on June 19, 2012.)

Some decisions are taken intuitively, while others are taken after long and painstaking analysis. Some are taken by a single person, others only after consultation with others. Some are wild gambles, others are calculated risks.

Good, bad and mediocre decisions belong to all these categories. The proof of the pudding is in the eating. The bottom line, the ultimate result of the decision taken, determines whether afterwards there is a need for soul-searching, or maybe even a commission of inquiry, or whether the decision makers deserve a pat on the back. Sometimes, only as time goes by and the full implications become apparent, can we rate a decision as good, bad or mediocre.

It’s not surprising that the United States set the precedent of establishing a national security council for discussion and decisions dealing with national security and foreign policy. There the Protestant work ethic prevails. “Do your homework” before taking a decision. That means enumerating the possible courses of action and analyzing the possible consequences of alternate decisions before deciding. In matters of state, the U.S. National Security Council, headed by the president and staffed by experts in relevant disciplines, is the forum where matters of national security and foreign policy are discussed and decisions are taken. The NSC was established after World War II in 1947.

For the first 50 years of Israel’s existence, no such forum existed here. It was considered sufficient that the Israel Defense Forces’ chief of staff reported directly to the defense minister, and on occasion to the prime minister, while the heads of the Mossad and the Shin Bet security service reported to the prime minister. If staff work was needed before a decision, it was carried out by the IDF. The Foreign Ministry was usually left out of the decision-making loop.

During Yitzhak Rabin’s first term as prime minister, I, as a freshmen member of the Knesset, a member of the opposition, introduced a motion calling for the establishment of a national security council. The motion was passed on to the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee for further discussion. There Rabin appeared and explained that there was no need for such a body in Israel. My motion was summarily defeated.

For many years opposition to the establishment of a national security council was characteristic of successive prime ministers, defense ministers, senior IDF personnel, and heads of the Mossad and Shin Bet. The prime minister felt he already had enough advisers, and the defense minister, the IDF, the Mossad and the Shin Bet preferred not to have an additional body intrude in the decision-making circle and come between them and the prime minister. Prime ministers did not feel they needed it, and an emphatic opponent over the years was the defense minister, who could use his political clout, in addition to his official position, to block any move to establish a national security council.

Benjamin Netanyahu, as prime minister in 1999, achieved what I as defense minister not only did not oppose but supported: a government decision establishing a national security council. Ariel Sharon, foreign minister at the time, insisted that the National Security Council not deal with foreign policy matters before giving his approval to its establishment. That’s how what was initially a disabled institution came into being – still better than nothing.

Prime ministers who followed Netanyahu insisted on ignoring the National Security Council. Ehud Barak negotiated with Yasser Arafat, Ariel Sharon decided on the Gaza disengagement, and Ehud Olmert launched the Second Lebanon War without availing themselves of the services of the National Security Council. The heads of the council left, one after the other, in frustration.

It was only on Netanyahu’s return to office that the National Security Council began to execute the function for which it was designed – the necessary staff work in preparation for government decisions on matters of national security and foreign policy. That’s no guarantee that good decisions will be taken, but it does increase the probability that bad decisions will be avoided.

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