Editorial |

War Powers Are Too Important to Be Left to Just Two People

The Knesset was wrong to give the prime minister the authority to go to war with only the defense minister's approval

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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu presents information on Iran's nuclear program in Tel Aviv, April 30, 2018.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu presents information on Iran's nuclear program in Tel Aviv, April 30, 2018.Credit: Sebastian Scheiner/AP

On Monday, the Knesset gave the prime minister and the defense minister the authority to go to war. Technically, the law it passed transfers the power to declare war from the cabinet to the inner cabinet, while allowing the prime minister to make do with consulting the defense minister only under “extreme circumstances.” But it is left to the prime minister and the defense minister to decide whether such circumstances exist. Their decision is not subject to oversight and cannot be changed. In this, the new law is radically different from the previous situation.

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The amendment to the Basic Law on Government that enabled this reassignment of authority from the full cabinet to the diplomatic-security cabinet is controversial in and of itself, and it’s not at all clear that the greater efficiency this change is supposed to produce outweighs the damage it will do the public legitimacy of any decision to declare war. But the circumstances for which the provision allowing the prime minister to make do with consulting the defense minister was enacted are ridiculous. A technological power like Israel shouldn’t have any problem holding a meeting with multiple participants even without all of them being physically in one place. But as has happened with similar slippery slopes, what began as a controversial amendment snowballed into a dramatic, unjustified, anti-democratic and dangerous change.

The decision to go to war is the most portentous decision any country can make. It means sending soldiers to endanger their lives, it places civilians in danger and allows the army to take human life. As such, it must enjoy the highest degree of popular legitimacy. But it’s impossible to obtain such legitimacy when the decision is entrusted to just two people, however lofty their positions, who represent political power that doesn’t represent a majority of the public and who haven’t taken into account the full range of considerations and viewpoints of members of the diplomatic-security cabinet.

The amendment to the Basic Law that was passed Monday contradicts Israel’s form of constitutional government, in which the executive branch is headed by the cabinet, which answers to the Knesset and the public, and the army is under the cabinet’s authority. This is one more step in a series of moves that are turning Israel’s system of government into an authoritarian one.

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It’s astounding that cabinet ministers chose to ignore the warnings of MKs Ofer Shelah (Yesh Atid) and Omer Bar-Lev (Zionist Union) that the wording of this law would enable the prime minister to keep ministers opposed to a given operation out of the loop and bring it to a vote without their being present. Instead, they opted to back the prime minister in a move that takes away their own power and responsibility over an issue of life and death.

The haste with which such a bad, dangerous amendment was passed Monday ought to worry all Israelis, because it raises the question of whether it’s still possible to rely on the Knesset. This amendment must be repealed immediately.

The above article is Haaretz’s lead editorial, as published in the Hebrew and English newspapers in Israel.

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