Decision making in Israel and its flaws
A review by Herb Keinon January 2013
Edited by M. Eliany
Former deputy national security adviser Chuck Freilich argues that a tough neighborhood, a crazy electoral system and weak civilian organs produce a faulty decision-making process that has worked in the past but is no longer providing the goods.
Israel, asserts Chuck Freilich, a former deputy national security adviser who served under prime ministers Ehud Barak and Ariel Sharon, is – despite everything – a phenomenal success story in social, economic, development, political and military terms.
But, he says, that success is despite the country’s decision-making process, not because of it. And that is the underlying theme of a recent book he published, titled Zion’s Dilemmas: How Israel Makes National Security Policy.
Freilich laid out in an interview the premise of his argument, and it is simple: Three variables of Israeli life – its tough external environment, its super-democratic electoral system and its weak civilian organs – have caused five “pathologies” that characterize is skewered decision-making process.
The word Freilich chooses – “pathologies” – is interesting because it bespeaks of something inherently unhealthy. Indeed, one of the dictionary definitions for pathology is the “anatomic or functional manifestations of a disease.”
His point is clear: the country’s decision-making process is diseased.
“We could scrape by for the first few decades with these pathologies in the decision-making process,” he says over a cup of coffee in a Jerusalem hotel lobby.
“But sooner or later it catches up with you.”
For instance, says Freilich, a senior fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, it has been some 45 years since Israel last won a war – the Six Day War – in an unequivocal manner. Various more recent stabs at dramatic peace-making – from the Oslo process through Camp David in 2000 and Ehud Olmert’s offer to PA President Mahmoud Abbas – have not exactly ended with resounding success.
But how is success defined, he is asked. By staving off destruction during the 1973 Yom Kippur War, didn’t Israel succeed? Success, Freilich says, is defined as achieving your objectives. Israel won the Yom Kippur War militarily, but lost it strategically, because afterward the Arabs were in a better position than before and Israel had to negotiate from a less advantageous position than would have been the case before the war.
Using this as the definition of success, Operation Pillar of Defense in November could be deemed a success, Freilich acknowledges, because it achieved the objectives: hitting Hamas hard, downgrading the organization’s military capability and restoring deterrence.
Failure is not always Israel’s fault, he explains. If the other side in a peace process is not willing to say “yes,” regardless of what is offered, then the failure should not be put at Israel’s doorstep.
While a good decision-making process does not ensure a good outcome because so many other variables are involved, it definitely helps, and Freilich’s point is that Israel’s decision-making process is fundamentally faulty.
According to Freilich, there are very few books available that describe Israel’s decision-making process in a systematic, analytical fashion. This itself is rather odd, considering all that has been written – both in Hebrew and in English – about the country, its government, its history and its military.
Freilich attributes this to two factors: first, that it took some time for a clear decision-making pattern to emerge, and secondly because there is not much long-range strategic thinking taking place in the country, with everyone focused on today and tomorrow, but no further.
Israel’s today is so difficult, Freilich says, because of the country’s harsh external environment – one of three variables that leads to the five “pathologies” of the decision-making process.
“The Middle East is a tough neighborhood, and even the best decision-making process would have a tough time here,” he says. He argues that Israel is unique in the world in that it fears not only politicide – defined as the destruction of the state – but also genocide – the annihilation of its people.
This environment is made much more difficult because of the machine-gun pace of change – a change, by the way, that pre-dates the Arab revolutions of 2011. Consider, for instance, the following events that have unfolded over the last three decades: the Lebanon War, the rise of Hezbollah, the Iran-Iraq War, the Gulf War, the Oslo process, the Rabin assassination, the Iranian nuclear program, negotiations over the Golan Heights, the failure at Camp David, the second intifada, the Clinton Parameters, the US invasion of Iraq, the disengagement from Gaza, the Hamas takeover of Gaza, the Olmert peace proposal, and so on. That pace of events does not lend easily to strategic planning.
Neither does the country’s electoral system. “This is an extraordinarily democratic system that is also dysfunctional,” he says, without smiling. “You have enormous representation at the expense of governability.”
Because of the country’s political fluidity, during the 10 years from 1996 to 2006, average tenure for cabinet ministers was only 16 months. This meant that directors-general of each ministry also served for relatively short times, often being replaced just when they began to learn the ropes and started to be able to act effectively.
And finally, according to Freilich, Israel is marked by “weak civilian organs,” especially the Foreign Ministry and the National Security Council, where he once served.
“The IDF is a phenomenal bureaucratic player,” he says. “When Ehud Barak was prime minister, he did not want a national security council, and now that he is defense minister, he simply ignores it and refuses to cooperate; he refuses to allow senior generals to attend its meetings.”
Those three variables – a tough external environment, a super democratic electoral system and weak civilian organs – lead to the five Israeli decision-making “pathologies”: an unplanned process; a politicized process; semi organized anarchy; an uninstitutionalized process; and the primacy of the IDF/defense establishment.
A glaring example of an unplanned process, he says, is the 1979 Camp David agreement with Egyptian president Anwar Sadat. When Sadat made his historic flight to Jerusalem, Freilich says, the policy process was nonexistent. “There was not one a single cabinet meeting before he came to Jerusalem. Menachem Begin spoke with [then-foreign minister] Moshe Dayan, and that was enough.”
“The process is very improvisational,” Freilich continues.
“We are the world champions at improvising, and that is part of our strength. No one can change course as quickly as possible.”
Yet this tends to inhibit long-term strategic thinking.
Israel, he says, does not generally engage in incremental decision-making, meaning setting a strategy and then gauging – as you move forward toward preset goals – whether what you are doing takes you to closer to those goals.
Rather, he defines Israel’s decision-making process as sequential, meaning that it is essentially done on the fly, as things go. In the Six Day War, for instance, Israel had not intended to take the entire Sinai Peninsula, but did so when it became possible. The same was true of the West Bank and the Golan Heights. The question was never asked, “Is this good for the country? Does this promote our overall goals and strategy?” Another fundamental problem, he says, is that the decision-making process is overly politicized.
Former generals-turned-politicians – people like Yitzhak Rabin, Ariel Sharon and Ehud Barak – did careful staff work their whole lives, while they were in the army. But when they entered politics, Freilich argues, they simply stopped.
Policy planning – defined as formulating objectives, setting priorities and weighing the possible ways to reach those goals – is good for the army but simply too dangerous for politicians, since everything leaks out of the deliberations.
The debate on policy in the cabinet, he says, is less a discussion about the merits of the issues and more a political debate predetermined by party line. And in this environment, the last thing the prime minister needs to do is bring an idea for consideration – perhaps a controversial idea – that will then be leaked to the press. “If you have an idea you want to bounce off people,” he says, “the last place you want to do it is in the cabinet.”
The security cabinet – a smaller body – would be a possible substitute, except that “small” body also includes an unwieldy 15 ministers. This is why various permeations of a smaller “kitchen cabinet” have been set up over the years, where informal discussions among the prime minister’s closest ministers can take place. And, indeed, ideas can be raised in these forums. The problem, he points out, is that these informal bodies do not have an organization like the National Security Council preparing the meetings in a systematic way and presenting the ministers with different options and a cost-benefit analysis for each option.
The result of this system is that what is often agreed upon – because the process is so politicized – is not the best option, but rather what will make it through the cabinet. “You are not trying to come up with the best outcome,” Freilich says, “but with what will work politically.”
The political system has also given birth to what Freilich terms as “semi-organized anarchy.”
“The prime minister is not really in charge,” he says, arguing that his statutory authority is limited to setting the agenda and convening the cabinet. The PM’s ability to govern is dependent on how adroit a political player he is.
“In this anarchy,” Freilich argues, “There is a disconnect between information being brought to the cabinet and the decisions the ministers make.”
Often, he says, the ministers ignore intelligence information or budgetary constraints. The decision to build the Lavi fighter plane in the 1980s, he says, is a good example of a decision made while ignoring budgetary constraints. That decision, he points out, was pushed by the Air Force, illustrating another problem in the process: the primacy of the IDF/defense establishment in making decisions.
“Because the civil organs are so weak, the security establishment, the IDF, is the primary bureaucratic player and usually determines policy,” he argues. He describes a “closed circle” where often the IDF’s Intelligence branch is telling the country what is happening, its Policy Planning branch is formulating policy and the soldiers are implementing it.
The question, Freilich asks, is how a fundamentally flawed process has produced overall national success.
“During times of great challenge and crisis, people are often able to discover new capabilities and sources of strength within themselves and to surmount the seemingly insurmountable,” he writes at the end of his book. “Facing historic, even existential, challenges, Israel had no choice but to rise to the occasion despite the decision making ills of its governmental system.”
Yet the danger is that the system’s ills are finally catching up with it, as evidenced by the country increasingly failing to achieve its policy objectives, or to even define them properly.
If the external environment cannot be fundamentally altered – our neighborhood is our neighborhood – then what is left is changing the way the governmental system works and strengthening the civilian organs. But this, he acknowledges, will not be easy.
“’The Lord is my shepherd,’ says the Book of Psalms, and fortunate this is, for the decision making process in Israel is deeply flawed,” Freilich concludes his book. “The Israeli decision making process is probably less planned while also more chaotic and politicized than in other countries, but it also has its own strengths. What makes its failings different and unacceptable is that some are manifested to an inordinate degree and that the challenges Israel’s external environment poses are such that it simply cannot afford them. Although reform is widely recognized as essential, the dysfunctions of the proportional representation electoral system, which account for much of the system’s failings, are also the biggest impediments to change.”