On May 10, 1981, the Israel Air Force was busy with last-minute preparations for an attack on Iraq's nuclear reactor. But then Menachem Begin, who was both prime minister and defense minister, decided to cancel the mission. Begin had received a letter from the head of the opposition, Shimon Peres, objecting to the operation. And if the news had leaked to Peres, Begin thought, it might also have reached the enemy.
Another possible strike date was May 31, but since Begin was due to meet with Egyptian president Anwar Sadat in Sharm al-Sheikh on June 4, the operation was postponed until June 7 to avoid undermining the summit. Thus Begin used his authority to decide whether or not a military operation that was about to be launched would actually be implemented.
In his recent testimony before the Turkel Committee investigating Israel's raid on a Gaza-bound flotilla, Defense Minister Ehud Barak distinguished between the "what," which is decided by the government, and the "how," which is the province of the army. But in truth, to this day, no formula has yet been found to properly define the relationship between these two bodies. Barak's definitions of "what" and "how" attempted to draw a clear line between the parties' respective authorities, but the most important question lurks in the area where they overlap.
Military action is supposed to complement diplomatic action, pave the way for it or, sometimes, substitute for it. Therefore, the first question that needs to be answered is "why" - in other words, is there any reason for the military action?
The next question is "what" to carry out: A reprisal operation? Taking control of territory? Then comes the "how" - the best way for the military to carry out this operation.
Finally, once the type of action (the "what" ) and the method of implementation (the "how" ) have been determined, a decision must be made on "whether" to actually go through with it. That process involves an ongoing dialogue in which political and military decision-makers feed off each other, with the center of gravity and the degree of influence moving between the two sides.
At the "why" stage, the center of gravity rests with the government; the only question is whether or not to take the process a step further. The "what" stage amounts to a balanced dialogue between the parties: Even if it is based on prepared operational plans, there is always room for changes and adjustments.
While the joint forum continues to debate the "what," the military is already working on the "how." This is when it gathers information, delves into details and discusses alternatives. The more the army's preparations for the "how" advance, the larger the data pool on which they are based grows - which is why it can then go back and influence the discussion on the "what."
The "whether" is not decided until the last minute. At that stage, both the government and the military have responsibility and authority over the question of whether to go ahead. The military's stance is determined by the operational conditions on the ground at that moment, while the government is influenced by diplomatic and other considerations.
At such a decisive moment, however, the center of gravity shifts to the government. It always has the last word.
In the American system, there is no doubt about where the boundaries of the respective bodies' authority lies. Nevertheless, they are aware of the overlap that exists between the government and the military.
The authority of the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, for instance, consists mainly of doing staff work and offering advice to the government, with which it works closely. This means it is more involved in the "what." The regional commanders, in contrast, are the ones who prepare and seek approval for the "how." But above them all, according to the U.S. constitution, is the president, who is the army's commander in chief.
There are many areas where the government's responsibility and that of the military overlap; to a great extent, the responsibility is collective. Still, there are cases in which one member of this collective bears responsibility for a failure and should not be allowed to continue in his post.
It would be better if the division of responsibility, definitions of authority and working procedures between Israel's government and army were not made clear only when the shadow of an investigative committee leads both parties to search for someone to blame.
Maj. Gen. (res. ) Eitan Ben Eliyahu is a former commander of the air force.