It is very possible that in the coming months, Israel’s top brass will have to decide whether to strike Iran’s nuclear sites or avoid such operation for the time being. It is also possible that in the near future, the leadership in Jerusalem will have to make another strategic decision: Whether to launch military operations in Syria or in Lebanon (or in both, simultaneously,) in order to thwart the possibility that the Assad regime’s chemical and biological arsenal, as well as advanced missile systems, will fall into irresponsible hands: Hezbollah, or Sunni terror groups that are already active in Syria in the framework of what is known as “the opposition.”
Will Israel order the IDF to launch a pre-emptive strike in Syria in order to prevent such scenarios from materializing? Or will it decided to address the problem in cooperation with the United States and members of NATO, including Turkey? In any case, both the Iranian and Syrian decisions are ones that may draw Israel into an ongoing conflict, and possibly ignite an all-out war.
This is precisely the reason why every citizen should be reading, with great attention and concern, the state comptroller’s report on the decision-making process involved in the Turkish flotilla raid, and on the functioning of Israel’s National Security Agency (NSA.) These two issues are inseparable, and addressing them together demonstrates that the damage suffered by Israel and its global stature in the Marmara affair stemmed mostly from flawed decision-making processes, and from the fact that the defense establishment maintains a monopoly on information and operational proposals.
‘It’s not the system, stupid’
The comptroller did not make do with pointing to the flaws he exposed in the flotilla affair and the NSA’s work in general. He also offered an explicit warning about the future. “Overall, an optimal decision-making process is lacking among the State of Israel’s top brass in respect to vital issues that are usually hidden from the public eye.” These are explicit words that contradict the reassuring messages issued by Defense Minister Ehud Barak on the possibility of an Iran strike. Barak claims that decisions on this front should be taken far away from the public eye, but says that they are being made responsibly through orderly, multi-participant processes.
The comptroller also undermined the criticism of Israel’s system of government. It’s as though the report cries out: “It’s not the system, stupid, but rather, the leaders and the manner in which they make decisions.”
In 2008, the Knesset passed the NSA Law, which set explicit rules whereby the NSA will determine the agenda for government and cabinet meetings on major security and diplomatic issues. The NSA is also tasked with presenting ministers operational alternatives, among other things. The aim was to put an end to a phenomenon that proved painfully harmful in the Second Lebanon War, whereby decisions made by our leaders on almost every major and strategic issue are a “captive” to the defense establishment.
Even before the NSA Law was legislated, the Knesset asserted through a Basic Law that the Cabinet is the limited body authorized by the government to make strategic decisions under circumstances that prevent the issues from being presented to the entire government. Moreover, the prime minister must convene the security cabinet every two weeks.
Yet in the flotilla affair, these two laws became a laughing stock. Meetings to discuss preparations for coping with the flotilla were held by Netanyahu in the forum of top seven government ministers, which has no legal or binding standing. The decisions were in fact taken by the IDF and defense minister; the forum of ministers served, at best, as a rubber stamp. Moreover, not only did the PM fail to convene the cabinet to discuss the flotilla, he did not bother to convene it at all for a long period of time.
And that’s not all. Instead of having the NSA present possible operational alternatives to the PM and ministers, this work was coordinated by the prime minister’s military secretary, who does not have his own staff and in fact served as the long arm of the IDF and defense minister in the Prime Minister’s Office. NSA Chief Dr. Uzi Arad and his deputy (a senior Navy officer) in fact convened discussions and made an effort to prepare military and non-military alternatives to thwart the flotilla. Yet the defense minister refused to send IDF representatives to take part in NSA meetings.
Meanwhile, the failure of Israel’s PR effort following the clash on the Marmara stemmed from the fact that the IDF was mostly concerned with presenting the operation’s outcome to the Israeli public. Hence, the army delayed the dissemination of its version of the events to the global media and lost precious hours where Turkey’s version took front stage.
However, there is some good news here as well. It appears that the media and public scandal initiated by Arad and the comptroller’s report prompted the desired results. The comptroller clearly notes that ever since Arad took up his post in 2009, there has been an improvement not only in the way the NSA functions, but also in the way the government makes use of its services. Recently, the NSA also participated in dozens of strategic discussions with the US, that is, on the Iran issue.
It’s good to end on an optimistic note, but we must not fall prey to delusions. The defense establishment and IDF, whose conduct indirectly prompted the resignation of almost all NSA chiefs in the past, is still fighting to maintain its monopoly on intelligence information and on strategic decision-making. As long as this war has not been unequivocally decided by the prime minister, decision-making processes that are “not optimal” will continue to characterize the Israeli government, also on issues where human life is hanging in the balance.