The Contortions and Distortions of a Prime Minister's Inner Circle

Prime ministers who are told only or mostly what they want to hear get a distorted perception of reality, particularly on foreign policy matters.

Alon Pinkas
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Is it possible that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is surrounded only by right-wing advisers? Yes. Is it possible that they reflect his politics and policies and reinforce them? Yes.

Do they all share a profound dislike for U.S. President Barack Obama and deep disbelief in the viability of a peace process with the Palestinians? Most likely, yes. 

Is there anything wrong or unnatural about this? Absolutely not. In fact, it would be surprising and unnatural for Netanyahu to be surrounded by anyone else.

In the glorified historical writings on White House staffs, they are called "Team of Rivals" (Lincoln) or "The Best and the Brightest" (Kennedy.) Some White House staffs have been elevated to the point of being credited for the president's success or blamed for his failures and shortcomings.

It is not unknown for staff members be afflicted with severe hubris, believing they actually eclipse the President they work for and exaggerating their influence on him and his policies. Other, less complimentary, accounts highlight constant infighting, unending turf wars and backstabbing, sharp elbowing in pursuit of the principal's attention, endemic dysfunction, fundamental inefficiency and lack of direction.

It is no different in Israel. The prime minister's staff is his closest, most immediate and, supposedly, most trustworthy reference group of individuals. They are his eyes, ears, practical agenda-setters, proving grounds and sounding-boards for ideas.

They both exemplify and shape his priorities, modus operandi, tone and frame of mind. In Israel, this circle of confidants and advisers is particularly important , given the country's limited size, informality and "everybody knows everybody" environment. It is a country in which cross-sections of security, intelligence, economic and political elites are very familiar and readily accessible to the prime minister.

But prime ministers, with few exceptions, are paranoid creatures. So those elites are often more a source of danger, anxiety and potential indiscretion than a source of knowledge, experience and collective prudence from which the premier can receive quality advice and feedback. That is especially so in the case of a prime minister who finds himself at odds with the security and intelligence elites on most issues, much as he is at odds with the old media elites.

This makes the PM's immediate environment an intellectual, political and personal comfort zone, where he expects to get the best possible advice, without ulterior motives, hidden agendas or being told that he is wrong.

While it is natural for a Prime Minister to be surrounded by people who share his views and positions on most major issues, when his inner circle becomes nothing more than an echo chamber, impervious to outside influences, perspectives and policy nuances, he is in danger of losing touch with reality.

It has been said about almost all prime ministerial staffs that they deliberately and recklessly "isolate" the premier, preventing outside advice from infiltrating in, deflecting and dismissing other policy options and essentially covering and coating the PM with validation, vindication and assurances.

Such accusations often originate from individuals who have been excluded from the immediate inner circle. But the fact that the criticism emanates from frustration or disillusionment does not mean it is not valid. Prime Ministers who are told only or mostly what they want to hear get a distorted perception of reality, particularly on foreign policy matters. The worst culture is when the bureau develops a "the world is against us" posture, further detaching the prime minister.

Presidents and prime ministers usually make staffing decisions based on two main criteria: Is he/she smart, skilled and experienced and is he/she loyal.

In an ideal world, leaders would opt for a combination of talent, experience and loyalty. Alas, such combinations are not in abundance. So premiers, by virtue of their often excessive self-confidence - "After all, I got elected PM, didn't I?" - typically opt for loyalty over talent and smarts, assuming they themselves will compensate for what is lacking.

Some exceptional premiers (no names mentioned, and not only in Israel) are so smart and savvy that they end up recruiting mediocre and patently untalented advisers, who often turn out to be disloyal and untrustworthy as well. These PM's invariably fall from power as a result of these choices.

The identity of the individuals around Netanyahu is immaterial to the broader issue. "X" is in, "Y" is out, "Z" has Mrs. Netanyahu's eternal love. That is irrelevant gossip.

The problem is the self-inflicted isolation of the prime minister and the bubble-environment created by the inner-circle, ostensibly to protect him. It is true that the premier, any premier, gets constant advice and input from the IDF Intelligence Branch, the Mossad, the Foreign Ministry, the National Security Council and the media. But prime ministers tend to be suspicious of such input. So they increasingly rely on the inner-circle.

When no one in that inner sanctum stands up and says, "Right or wrong, you cannot alienate a U.S. President for five years," something is wrong.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with adviser Ron Dermer, now Israel's ambassador in Washington.Credit: Government Press Office