Israel's Broken Process

By Yoram Peri
Friday, August 25, 2006

The rumblings of a political earthquake in Israel were heard even before the guns fell silent. The question before the country now is: What went wrong in the war in Lebanon? One part of the answer is already clear: Israel desperately needs a better system for decision-making in the national security realm.

The civil branch of Israel's government and its decision-making machinery must be made strong enough to balance the military's input. Otherwise, there will only be more events like the one this summer, in which no well-reasoned alternatives were presented to cabinet ministers to compete with the Israeli Defense Forces' (IDF) recommendation to embark on a broad campaign in Lebanon.

This military option was discussed in the cabinet for less than three hours, was not countered by any diplomatic option and was approved in a conceptual void. Moreover, once a path of action was adopted, something went terribly wrong in making and implementing decisions.

Rectifying this situation is easier said than done. To appreciate the size of the challenge, one needs to take into account the complexity of Israel's civil-military relations and their inherent quirks and anomalies.

To begin with, the military is not necessarily the most militaristic player on the field. At times the IDF's senior command -- rather than the politicians -- has been the moderating force. In the mid-1980s IDF Chief of Staff Moshe Levi recommended the Israeli military's withdrawal from northern Lebanon, while then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir (of the Likud Party) objected to such a move. My recent research on Israel's foreign policy in the 1990s reveals that the driving force behind the Oslo peace process was the Israeli military. Civilian leaders then fell in step.

The most cogent and relevant example of the Israeli military's lack of militancy was its attitude toward Syria since 1999. IDF Chief of Staff Shaul Mofaz and his successor, Moshe Yaalon, both recommended peace negotiations with Syria and were prepared to make significant territorial compromises to reach a peace settlement. Prime Minister Ehud Barak and his successor, Ariel Sharon, vigorously opposed this approach. Had this recommendation been adopted, it's possible that Syria, Lebanon and Israel would be at peace today, and Hezbollah would be without a major source of support and sponsorship.

As a rule, in just about any country, war strengthens the position of the top brass vis-à-vis civilian authorities. And the military's added political clout can alter the nature of democratic processes. In Israel, however, because of the protracted warfare since its founding (no fewer than 10 full-scale or partial campaigns since 1948), the pattern has been somewhat different. Rather than the military leading and calling the shots for civilian authorities, there is a military-political partnership -- albeit one in which generals enjoy extraordinary clout in the policymaking process.

The problems this summer stemmed from more than the generals' traditional power. The circumstances were unusual. The IDF had a monopoly on intelligence. The country had an inexperienced prime minister and lacked a strong National Security Council. These things, along with other structural weaknesses in the machinery of civilian control of the military, resulted in a weak Israeli government that hastily bowed to the generals' emphatically stated position.

In many respects, war has been the most decisive factor in Israeli society. Wars have shaped Israel's political agenda, and unsuccessful military campaigns have sparked protest movements, brought down prime ministers and redrawn the political map. The Lebanon war is likely to be another such defining event.

The focus of controversy in coming weeks will not be whether the war was justified; the overwhelming majority of Israelis, including myself, are convinced it was. Rather, the question will be whether it was wise to opt for full-scale war as Israel's response to the kidnapping of two soldiers. And if a military operation was indeed the appropriate response, what should have been its timing, nature and scope?

The military will undoubtedly draw the professional conclusions about this war, as it has in the past. The public will eventually punish the political leaders for their conduct of it. But Israel's fundamental security posture will not improve until the pattern of relations between its generals and political leaders is dramatically altered and a better decision-making mechanism in national security matters is established.

Wars really are too serious a matter to be left to either fervent generals or weak politicians.

The writer, a professor at Tel Aviv University, served as a political adviser to the late prime minister Yitzhak Rabin. He is the author of "Generals in the Cabinet Room: How the Military Shapes Israeli Policy."

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