The prime minister of Israel holds one of the most important jobs in the world. The country’s internal problems, regional and international relations and the political climate place an enormous burden on the head of the government. Leaders and heads of state are usually surrounded by staff members who help them fulfill their duties. Not our prime minister.
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The prime minister of Israel actually serves as the defense minister as well, with responsibilities for the Mossad, the General Security Service and the Atomic Energy Agency. He is the head of the inner cabinet for security affairs, and the National Security Council reports to him. The nominal defense minister deals with the army and with military industries. Foreign relations and strategic affairs also routinely land on his desk. At a time when international affairs are in turmoil, his hands are full. If that were not enough, his bureau has traditionally also always handled the strategic relationship with the United States, the conflict with the Arab and Muslim world and the peace process with the Palestinian Authority.
In economic affairs, the prime minister also serves as the uber-finance minister, responsible, even more than the finance minster, for balancing the budget at a time when the global economy is undergoing a period of great uncertainty. Furthermore, in a period of social protest and a change in the discourse between the public and the government, the prime minister is more involved in these issues than ever before.
Constitutionally, he is the first among equals. The official wording stipulates that the government is made up of “the Prime Minister and other ministers”, but in Israel’s political climate it’s clear that he is the address for all the other civilian ministries. Ministers want to hold ongoing work meeting with him and any complications in decision-making bring forward an unimaginable array of topics that he has to contend with.
The political agenda also takes up much of his time. His survival requires that he devote time to internal party affairs, as well as to maintaining his coalition and the balance of power in the Knesset. People familiar with previous prime ministers know the expression ‘maintenance time’, time needed for keeping together political and coalition alliances.
That’s not the end of it. He also needs to keep fostering his public image and maintaining his links with the media. He needs to devote much time to reading and studying all the complex topics that land on his desk. In between, he also has a personal family life.
Even an amalgamation of Winston Churchill, Nelson Mandela and Margaret Thatcher could not produce a leader capable of successfully handling all these challenges on his own. A few administrative assistants, who are not involved in the demanding contents of his work, are insufficient in assisting him. To handle all his affairs, the prime minister needs talented and capable confidants, devoted people well-versed in the inner workings of Israeli politics and the prime minister’s activities.
The role of a bureau and its members revolves around two axes. Inwardly, the team is responsible for the most precious resource, his timetable. Differentiating between important and less urgent issues and allocating his time are major functions of this team. They also have to represent him to all the external agencies that vie for his time. Their word is tantamount to his.
All former prime ministers of Israel had bureaus, though some were better than others. David Ben Gurion was surrounded by significant people, in addition to his ministers and his party functionaries. They played key roles in establishing the state and its institutions. Five decades later, Ariel Sharon surrounded himself with devoted people who implemented complex decisions while overcoming stiff opposition. It’s hard to imagine how Sharon could have succeeded, without the help of his ‘farm’ team, in dealing with all the relevant issues a prime minister has to contend with. In his case these included the Defense Wall military operation in the West Bank, setting up the Kadima party, implementing the disengagement from Gaza, conducting relations with the U.S. and the day-to-day running of Israel’s affairs.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is not managing to gather around him a team of trusty and devoted assistants and counsellors. The need is not for administrative personnel, but for involved, well-informed, appreciated and powerful individuals. They need to mediate between him and the multiple agencies and systems that he has to manage. A prime minister who can rely on such a group can be more relaxed and free to deal with the really important issues at hand, making time to carefully consider important and complex decisions that need to be taken. In a conversation I held recently with a senior official in the defense establishment, he told me that what worries him most is that Netanyahu doesn’t have the ‘internalization time’, required for decision making. This is a truly worrying statement.
When there is no organized, well-run bureau behind the prime minister, the already difficult and complex functioning of the nation’s leadership is even further disrupted. When a prime minister relies almost totally on himself, he has difficulty making decisions, filling positions and creating a professional and high-quality organization. While he may pay a personal or political price for this, what about the price the country pays?
The writer was cabinet secretary between 2003 and 2007.