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Israel’s decision making process on national security needs an overhaul

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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.

Since Operation Protective Edge, a number of MKs have begun to demand reforms. Education Minister Bennett, a vocal critic of the cabinet’s decision-making process during the war, has spent the past two years leading a campaign to retool the process. Last May, Bennett threatened to block the appointment of Avigdor Lieberman as defence minister unless Netanyahu agreed to make a number of reforms, one of which was appointing a special military secretary to regularly brief the cabinet. (Additional reforms have been proposed that call for consequences for ministers who neglect to make use of the information provided to them.) Also at Bennett’s request, Netanyahu appointed a commission to propose recommendations to reform the national security decision-making process within the cabinet. That commission, led by former National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror, submitted its recommendations in December 2016 which haven’t yet been discussed.. In November 2016, Shelah proposed a bill to overhaul the security cabinet, and properly ascribe its priorities and responsibilities among other changes. The fate of this bill currently rests in the hands of Knesset speaker Yuli Edelstein.

Israel would do well to use this relative “quiet” as an opportunity to make the requisite improvements to its national security decision-making process, including clarifying the role and authority of the security cabinet. After all, as IDF MI chief Herzl Halevi warned the Knesset FADC last February: “The humanitarian condition in Gaza is progressively deteriorating, and if it blows up, it’ll be in Israel’s direction.” This week Halevi gave the committee a similar briefing. The last time cabinet ministers received such a dire warning was in April 2013 – 15 months prior to the outbreak of hostilities. Only then, as the Comptroller report illustrates, the government failed to adequately discuss the matter or take action to address the deteriorating conditions in the Gaza Strip.

Nearly two and a half years have elapsed since operation Protective Edge. The tunnel threat from Gaza persists and reconstruction efforts in Gaza are moving at a glacial pace. Third-party negotiations for a prisoner and body exchange deal have reached an impasse, and renewed discussions remain unlikely due to the election of Sinwar.

Yet a greater challenge for Israel is dealing with another key finding in the report, which relates to the government’s lack of overall strategy for Gaza. While political ideology and domestic politics can hamper the political leadership’s efforts to develop a proper strategy for Gaza, the Comptroller did make one thing very clear: In order to have proper cabinet deliberations on matters of long-term strategy, the decision-making process within the cabinet must be reformed to ensure ministers are regularly and adequately briefed. In the wake of the release of this scathing report, sustained public pressure on the political elite is essential to ensure that reforms are implemented.

Lauren Mellinger is BICOM’s Research Fellow.