Netanyahu, Abbas, Obama AP 2009.
Benjamin Netanyahu, Barack Obama and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas before a meeting in New York in 2009. Photo by AP
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The government has no policies, and its ministers have no idea what the prime minister will tell his Palestinian dialogue partners in Washington. The phrase "the policy of the Israeli government" is a fiction. The only policy is that of the prime minister.

It is Benjamin Netanyahu alone who will, in far-away Washington, decide the future of the country. His ministers will, like the rest of us, find out the details only after he presents his political doctrine to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and other PA officials.

It appears that the power concentrated in the hands of Israel's prime minister has no corollary anywhere else in the democratic world. The media debate on the future of the coalition creates the impression that Netanyahu is a weak premier, subject to pressure from the right and the left; in practice, however, he enjoys full decision-making autonomy on issues of genuine strategic importance.

What was on the cabinet's agenda just before Netanyahu headed to Washington yesterday? Integrating mothers into the workforce and appointing a consul in Boston. The members of the cabinet did not even try to find out the contours of the map Netanyahu was taking with him to Washington or those of the agreement he wants to reach. In the same spirit, the prime minister decided on Monday to cancel a planned meeting of the forum of seven, in which the senior ministers were supposed to discuss his trip to Washington. There's no point in holding the meeting, he said, as it would in any case just be for show.

Thus, it has come to pass that the country's senior ministers, who are supposedly influencing policy, or are at least be involved in shaping it, are left guessing about Netanyahu's intentions. Industry, Trade and Labor Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer is hoping Netanyahu plans to reach a deal involving some concessions on Israel's part. He "believes," as he puts it, he know what Netanyahu thinks. Vice Prime Minister Silvan Shalom says the prime minister must update the ministers on the peace process in a formal meeting. Neither Ben-Eliezer nor Shalom nor any of their colleagues around the cabinet table has the slightest clue as to how Israel's borders will look if Netanyahu gets his way.

The problem is not just that the cabinet members have no idea what the prime minister is planning, but that they willingly accept this state of affairs. And when, in an effort to exert some influence on Netanyahu before he left the country, Minority Affairs Minister Avishay Braverman demanded a clear statement from Labor describing its position on peace talks, Ben-Eliezer said: "This isn't the right time to threaten Netanyahu with quitting the coalition. Now is the time we should be standing behind him, during negotiations."

Standing behind the prime minister is important and fitting, but only on condition that those doing the supporting know what exactly it is that they're supporting.

Netanyahu didn't come up with this flawed process. His predecessors also enjoyed the power that comes with the autonomy their ministers granted them. Some took advantage of this to make critical decisions on their own and brought them to the cabinet for approval afterward. That's what happened when Ehud Barak decided to withdraw from Lebanon and when Ariel Sharon decided to pull out of the Gaza Strip. In both cases, the cabinet was notified about the new policy after it was formulated and brought to the ministers for approval.

There's no doubt this a serious flaw in Israel's policy-making process on issues that affect our future. All the same, the unparalleled power that has been given to the prime minister gives him the opportunity to be a reformist, a path breaker who cuts the Gordian knot of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in one fell swoop.