All by Himself

The prime minister's speech at Bar-Ilan University earlier this week proved once again how flawed Israel's policy-making process is.

The prime minister's speech at Bar-Ilan University earlier this week proved once again how flawed Israel's policy-making process is. Once again it turns out that policy, even when it involves critical decisions regarding the country's future, is set by one person without discussion in any official forum and without even a basic process in which alternatives are examined.

The amazing thing is that Benjamin Netanyahu's colleagues in the cabinet accepted this faulty process as if it were a divine writ. In the days leading up to the speech, ministers and MKs took pride in their proximity to Netanyahu and that they had received hints on what he would say. It never occurred to any of them to sound the warning that the prime minister was determining government policy, if not the country's future, all by himself, and that they would only hear what may seal the country's fate at the same time the public and viewers from all over the world heard it live.

As opposed to the perceived role of the Israeli prime minister, in which his political power is seen as limited and his ability to make decisions is dependent on his coalition partners' goodwill, in practice the premier enjoys full autonomy in setting national security policy. The decision on whether to exploit that autonomy is left in his hands only; the result is that Israeli prime ministers sometimes formulate by themselves, or in the best case in consultation with a few "confidants," policies of supreme national importance.

The disadvantage inherent in this situation is clear. When the prime minister formulates policy all by himself, an orderly process - which includes examining alternatives, long-term implications for the country's future and an analysis of the ramifications of this policy on relations with our neighbors - does not exist. In this way the decisions are largely based on instinct.

History teaches us that there have been cases when the correct decisions were made despite a lack of an orderly process, but as the Winograd Committee report stated: "In general, orderly decision-making processes could have significantly limited the deficiencies."

Netanyahu is not the first prime minister to determine national security policy all by himself and declare it to be the cabinet's policy, without first bringing it to a discussion in an official forum, or without receiving cabinet approval.

It is more than enough to mention the way David Ben-Gurion arrived at the policy that led to his decision in the 1956 Sinai Campaign, or how Ariel Sharon decided on the plan for the 2005 disengagement from Gaza. In both of these cases, as in many others, the cabinet learned of the policies only after the prime minister decided to implement them, and in some cases only after he had begun. This unhealthy situation is the result of a unique political culture that has developed here. It seems impossible to compare the decision-making autonomy of the Israeli prime minister on national security matters with what occurs in any other democracy. Even the president of the United States does not have the same level of autonomy as the Israeli prime minister.

Because of the political and media interest in Netanyahu's speech, almost everything was reported, but the main issue was missing from the reports: No one questioned how it is that one man can decide the future of a country while everyone surrounding him remains silent, waiting with bated breath to hear what he has to say.