The most significant news coming out of Israel this week wasn’t the Sunday night strike – allegedly by Israel – on a Syrian arms depot that killed over two dozen regime and Iranian fighters, nor was it Prime Minister Netanyahu’s televised revelation on Monday that Israel had smuggled thousands of files out of Iran containing conclusive proof that the Iranian regime lied about its past nuclear activities. It was rather a Knesset vote on Monday night that dramatically changes the circumstances in which Israel can declare war. While this may seem like a technicality, the context of the Israeli political system and some recent history demonstrate why this small change could easily lead to poor decisions and regional chaos.
Until Monday, all wars or major military operations conducted by Israel required approval by some segment of the cabinet. Israeli law does not endow the prime minister with anything akin to the commander-in-chief powers that the U.S. president has under the Constitution, nor does it even grant the prime minister any type of special authority over military decisions. On the contrary, Israel’s Basic Law: The Military states that the governmental figure with ultimate control over the IDF is the defense minister, and it is to him or her that the chief of staff reports and under whose authority he or she is subject. Itamar Rabinovich’s excellent biography of Yitzhak Rabin details the way in which this arrangement became an ongoing source of friction during Rabin’s first term as prime minister between him and his defense minister Shimon Peres, who guarded this prerogative so zealously that he prevented direct contact between Rabin – himself a former chief of staff – and IDF Chief of Staff Mota Gur.
Furthermore, because in Israel’s political system the prime minister is supposed to be first among equals rather than an all-powerful figure, there has been a long tradition of consensus about decisions concerning war and peace. Israeli law has been that the state cannot initiate a war without a cabinet vote, but even major military decisions short of a declaration of war have been subject to oversight by smaller groups of ministers short of the full cabinet. In recent years, the Ministerial Committee on National Security Affairs – colloquially known as the security cabinet – has been the body that oversees, debates, and approves big military decisions, and prime ministers including Netanyahu have been reluctant to undertake military operations without near unanimity in the security cabinet. It is because of the growing and prominent role that the security cabinet has assumed over time that there is consensus in Israel among both the current government and opposition parties that the security cabinet’s customary functions should be codified into law, and thus Monday’s vote was supposed to amend Israeli law to give the security cabinet (rather than the full cabinet) the power to declare war.
What happened instead, however, was that at the last moment an amendment was added that then passed with the rest of the bill that grants the prime minister and the defense minister the power to declare war or authorize major military operations alone and without the consent of the rest of the security cabinet in undefined situations of extreme urgency. This amendment, unlike the broader reforms, is not widely supported, and had in fact been rejected in committee, but once introduced in the legislation itself it was approved as part of the larger vote. Thus the power to embark on significant military operations, which has for Israel’s entire history been subject to wider oversight in an effort to avoid groupthink and create consensus, has now been significantly narrowed in a major way, without any guidance on what conditions satisfy the extreme urgency that would allow the security cabinet to be sidelined.
Leaving aside the fact that Israel’s political system was specifically engineered to avoid this type of narrow process and that Israeli custom has been to get wide buy-in for major security decisions – including involving non-political figures such as the chief of staff and security and intelligence chiefs – there is relevant not-too-distant history pointing to why narrowing the band of deciders to two is a bad idea. During the earlier part of this decade, when Israel’s leaders were debating what to do about Iran’s nuclear program, Netanyahu and then-Defense Minister Ehud Barak decided that they wanted to launch a strike against Iranian nuclear facilities. Rather than simply conduct a military operation, however, they needed to get the security cabinet’s approval, which at the time numbered fourteen and broke down eight in favor and six against. Even having this small majority was not enough, since it would have been enormously divisive to take the giant and risky step of attempting to take out Iran’s nuclear program without anything approaching unanimity. Israel instead backed away, and over half a decade later it is very difficult to find anyone in the Israeli security establishment – which as a general group was vociferously opposed to the Iran deal – who believes with the benefit of hindsight that a strike on Iran in 2012 or 2013 would have been a good idea.
A similar dynamic prevailed with a different result a few years earlier when Israel under Prime Minister Ehud Olmert destroyed the Syrian al-Kibar nuclear reactor. Olmert consulted widely with ministers, former prime ministers, IDF and intelligence chiefs, and outside experts before coming to a decision, and then not only received cabinet approval for the operation but formed a trio with Defense Minister Barak and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni responsible for approving the operational specifics and timing. Olmert was taking an enormous risk given the unpredictability of a potential Syrian (or Iranian) response and the opposition of President George W. Bush to the strike, and it was the wider network of people who approved the decision to bomb the reactor that not only gave him cover to do what he thought necessary but also reinforced his instincts that it was the correct move. Absent this process, there is no way of knowing what Olmert would have done or what the reaction inside of Israel would have been.
There is also evidence of what happens when the larger group is eliminated. As detailed in the investigative report released by Israeli State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss, in the run up to Israel’s operation in 2010 to prevent the Mavi Marmara from reaching Gaza and breaking the naval blockade, Netanyahu and Barak ran roughshod over other ministers, ignoring or dismissing warnings and advice from them and IDF officials. Netanyahu did not even convene the cabinet to discuss the operation, let alone hold a formal or informal vote, and the operation was widely considered to be a disaster that created an unnecessary public relations crisis for Israel and hastened a long-coming rupture with Turkey. Imagine this scenario being replicated today in a decision to attack Iran, but with Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman – who has by all accounts been doing a solid and professional job but who is perhaps the least militarily experienced defense minister in Israeli history – as the only person in the room to check Netanyahu.
But for all of the evidence detailing why Monday’s new law is a bad idea, the starkest reason may be that it actually provides Israeli prime ministers with unilateral decision making power beyond the oversight of even one other human being. Three Israeli prime ministers – David Ben Gurion, Yitzhak Rabin, and Ehud Barak – have simultaneously served as their own defense ministers, just as Netanyahu now holds the foreign affairs portfolio, and in that scenario a prime minister would not be required to get authorization from anyone to declare war if he or she decided that it was a matter of extreme urgency. Given everything that Israel currently faces, from escalating fighting in Syria to a more tense relationship with Russia to the threat of hundreds of thousands of Hizballah rockets being launched from Lebanon at a moment’s notice, consolidating power in a maximum of two people (but potentially in only one) and laying the foundations for the security cabinet to be cut out entirely is not only foolish but monumentally dangerous.