At Least God Is My Shepherd

A recently published article severely criticizes Israel's diplomatic and security decision-making processes. Chuck Freilich, former deputy head of the National Security Council, wrote the article for Autumn 2006 issue of the Middle East Journal.

Israeli leaders are motivated largely by trying to remain in office and to satisfy their coalition partners, and Israeli policy is characterized by a lack of organized planning and reactions to passing events, Freilich writes.

In the article, he quotes Psalm 23 - "God is my shepherd" - and then comments wryly that this is fortunate, because no other body in Israel has the supreme authority and the structural capabilities necessary to make effective decisions.

Freilich left his post, and the civil service, a year ago, and the article is influenced to a large extent by the disengagement from the Gaza Strip. Former prime minister Ariel Sharon, Freilich writes, decided on the disengagement without consulting the national security bureaucracy about various alternatives; instead, he consulted it only after the decision had been made.

Israel's decision-making system, Freilich says, acts under two major constraints: the security threat to the country, and the proportional representation electoral system, which, he says, causes extreme politicization of the process. Over the years, the number and complexity of the agencies dealing with national security in Israel has grown considerably, but this has not found expression in the decision-making process. He adds: The Israeli National Security Council, which was set up in 1999, has a marginal position, and prime ministers prefer to lean on personal advisers. The three previous prime ministers, he notes, all used the services of personal lawyers for sensitive diplomatic missions.

In his analysis of the "pathology" of Israel's decision-making process, Freilich points out that the prime minister has no staff of his own; that the government is a federation of ministers appointed because of their political sway rather than their executive talents; and that the government usually makes its decisions without discussing alternatives, essentially merely approving decisions prepared in advance. The problem is not just the lack of a suitable decision-making forum at the national level, he writes, but also a lack of actual policies. Prime ministers find this convenient, because they are not committed to a formal policy and can change their positions at will.

Without orderly and coordinated instructions from above, professional bureaucrats have to "guess" what the policy is, Freilich says. Prime ministers tend to rely on their own personal experience and prefer not to hold orderly consultations. Israel's decision-making process is by and large conducted orally, without documentation and without written instructions. Only rarely do cabinet ministers read documents distributed ahead of votes, he added.

Lack of coordination

Like many other researchers before him, Freilich mentions the Israel Defense Forces' excessive weight in the decision-making process. The IDF is better organized than other agencies and plays a central role in security problems. Other bodies, such as the Foreign Ministry, suffer from organizational weakness, he says, and the entire system is characterized by lack of coordination and duplication.

Freilich questions how, despite all these drawbacks, Israel sometimes makes correct decisions, especially with regard to national security. He concludes that this is because the government establishment is small, "everyone knows everyone else" and people have learned to react quickly and flexibly to changes. Those who make the decisions, including in the military establishment, tend to be pragmatic rather than committed to rigid ideologies, he says, and that explains how the last few prime ministers were able to change their positions so radically.