Why Israel Needs the National Security Council

As a former defense minister, I can say our experience teaches us that a methodical decision-making process on security brings with it a higher probability that a good decision will be taken.

Moshe Arens
Moshe Arens
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National Security Council head Yossi Cohen speaks to former head Uzi Arad at a Knesset meeting, December 2, 2015.
National Security Council head Yossi Cohen speaks to former head Uzi Arad at a Knesset meeting, December 2, 2015.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi
Moshe Arens
Moshe Arens

The current debate about the actions of the cabinet during Operation Protective Edge, the discussions about the underground tunnels dug by Hamas in the Gaza Strip and cabinet members' awareness – or ignorance – of this danger should turn our attention to the function of the National Security Council, which is mandated by law to present the prime minister and members of the cabinet with an overview of the dangers facing Israel and alternatives for dealing with them.

The National Security Council is of relatively recent vintage. Until its establishment in March 1999, this task had been left to the defense minister and his staff of Israel Defense Forces officers, a task which defense ministers jealously guarded for themselves over the years, opposing any suggestions that others might participate in the process of analyzing and presenting security challenges facing the nation. There is little doubt that the establishment of the NSC has produced a significant improvement in the decision-making process on security matters.

This is not to say that the right decisions cannot, on occasion, be taken by a single individual without an ordered, analytic process carried out by government institutions dedicated to this task. It doesn't mean that the wrong decision won't, on occasion, be taken even when the process is orderly and sequential. But all in all, our experience teaches us that a methodical decision-making process brings with it a higher probability that a good decision will be taken.

Interestingly enough, most defense ministers in Israel’s history showed little interest in establishing a National Security Council. First and foremost, of course, was David Ben-Gurion, the prime minister and defense minister during Israel’s War of Independence who guided the nation to victory when Israel’s very existence was at stake. His foresight and abilities were truly singular and it is not likely that the defense ministers who followed were endowed with an equal measure of both. And yet, Yitzhak Rabin and Ehud Barak emulated Ben-Gurion and decided to hold the positions of prime minister and defense minister, thus bypassing an essential step in the decision-making process: the consultation between the two.

During Rabin’s first term as prime minister, as a junior member of the opposition in the Knesset, I introduced a motion calling for the establishment of a National Security Council. Rabin explained to the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee that there was no need for such a body, and the motion was defeated by the coalition. Defense ministers who followed showed similar disdain for the establishment of such a group, seeing it as an encroachment on what they considered their prerogatives.

The National Security Council was finally established toward the end of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s first term in office, in March 1999. Serving as defense minister at the time, I gave this initiative my approval; David Ivry was the NSC's first director.

The prime ministers who came after Netanyahu – Ehud Barak, Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert – showed little regard for the council, which only began to fulfill the mission for which it was established with the return of Netanyahu to the prime minister’s office in 2009. The duties of the NSC had in the meantime been detailed in a special law passed in the Knesset in July 2008.

For the past seven years, the NSC has been an integral part of the decision-making process on security matters, which has substantially improved during Netanyahu’s tenure as prime minister. Hopefully the council will become a permanent fixture in that process in the years to come.

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