How Convenient That the Army Decides

Israel's policy-making pattern is convenient for senior politicians, who can shift responsibility for any failures onto the IDF.

The Turkel Committee hearings have once again revealed something already well known and problematic in Israel: The decision-making process is based solely on decisions by the Israel Defense Forces. Whenever a strategic decision is required, only one proposal is put on the table - that of the army. What made Benjamin Netanyahu's testimony before the Turkel panel different was that, for the first time, a prime minister admitted this publicly.

Retired Supreme Court justice Jacob Turkel, who chairs the committee, asked Netanyahu: "In practice, is it the IDF that [ultimately] decides which method is preferable?" The prime minister's response: "Indeed, that is how it always is."

Turkel then pushed the point and asked, "Were alternative methods for enforcing the blockade considered at the decision-making level? Or was the issue of alternatives also left up to the army?" Netanyahu stated: "No, I said the IDF examined the various options for carrying out the mission."

That is, the government gives the army complete autonomy to determine how government policy will be implemented. The prime minister and his ministers don't even bother examining the details of the operation being planned by the army or its potential impact on arenas beyond the military - for example, the country's status internationally.

This policy-making pattern is convenient for senior politicians, as they can then place responsibility for any failures on the IDF. That is how Defense Minister Ehud Barak handled the situation when testifying before the panel: He was quick to blame the army for its failed flotilla operation. "The military echelon must be able to say the damage will outweigh the benefit, and that it therefore recommends that the action not be carried out," Barak said. In other words - I, the defense minister, am not in any way obligated to consider the potential damage of a military action I have approved.

In this way, Barak frees himself of the responsibility inherent in his position, placing a task that is supposed to be the government's in the army's hands. And when the IDF pointed out the possibility of an imbroglio with flotilla activists, "the army said 'there will be friction, difficult moments, violence, perhaps wounded,'" as Barak testified. Then, too, the defense minister decided it was not his business to consider the negative implications that could follow such an altercation.

None of this, with the exception of the public admission by the prime minister and defense minister, is new. Many committees of inquiry have pointed to this very defect, from the Olshan-Dori Committee of the 1960s to the Winograd Committee three years ago. The latter wrote: "We learned that the army is the government's staff body with regard to military actions and that in effect it handles the political aspects too, among other things, because the government and prime minister have no proper staff of their own available. We noted that the army, for this reason, is inherently dominant ... and therefore excessive weight is given to the army's recommendations, while the political echelon does not have effective ability to challenge it, to grasp the weakness of its recommendations or to examine its capabilities."

The Winograd Committee, like the Agranat Committee before it, recommended improving the decision-making processes and not allowing a situation whereby only one option would be put on the government's table - that of the IDF. However, just as the political leaders of the 1970s ignored the Agranat recommendations, present-day politicians continue to ignore the Winograd report.

It can be assumed that the members of the Turkel panel will likewise point to this serious flaw and, unfortunately, it can be assumed that Netanyahu and Barak will ignore it and continue to formulate policy in such a way that they will always be able to blame the army for any failures. The problem is exacerbated when the IDF itself fails to carry out its plans, something that has been happening too often recently.