Two Men Are Making Israel's Big Decisions

Why do we need the other 28 ministers when all they are is a rubber stamp?

Shortly after the Palestinians announced a halt to negotiations with Israel "until the settlement freeze is resumed," Benjamin Netanyahu responded by calling on Mahmoud Abbas to return to the bargaining table "in order to reach a framework agreement within a year." Yesterday, the prime minister said he is in the midst of sensitive discussions with the Americans whose goal is to find a solution that would enable negotiations to resume. He also asked his ministers to refrain from commenting on the matter to the press.

But Social Affairs Minister Isaac Herzog refused to keep quiet. Herzog suggested that the diplomatic-security cabinet convene urgently to discuss the situation. "We are at a critical moment regarding the future of our talks with the Palestinians," he said. "It is inconceivable that issues so critical to our future should not be discussed by either the inner cabinet or the [full] cabinet."

The truth is that this absurd state of affairs, in which a vital issue is never discussed, is indeed possible here in Israel. It appears that despite a cabinet numbering 30 ministers, as well as a diplomatic-security cabinet and even a "septet" of seven key ministers, critical decisions are made by two individuals: the prime minister and the defense minister. The other ministers do not participate in the process. They are there solely as a rubber stamp. That is how it was in the past and that is how it is today.

In an article published over the Sukkot holiday, former minister Aryeh Deri recalled an episode that occurred during the first Gulf War in 1991. Deri was a young minister in the government headed by Yitzhak Shamir. After two days of missile attacks against Israel, the cabinet convened to decide whether to hit back at Iraq.

Defense Minister Moshe Arens was in favor, as were Ariel Sharon, Rafael Eitan, Rehavam Ze'evi and Yuval Ne'eman. Other ministers were opposed to Israeli intervention in Iraq, but they kept quiet. Some were afraid to anger Arens, and some did not want to be seen as "soft" in a right-wing government. But behind the scenes, they quietly encouraged Deri to voice his opposition. As it turned out, he was the lone dissenting voice (though due to American objections, the attack ultimately never took place).

Deri's regrettable conclusion was that for those ministers, personal machinations and political calculations took precedence over the good of the state. Deri also recalled how military officials present at the meeting sought to silence him, prompting him to remind them that the government commands the army, not vice versa.

Another illustration was brought to us by Minister Michael Eitan in an interview that also appeared over Sukkot. Eitan was asked about the likelihood of Israel launching a strike on Iran. He replied that the cabinet has not discussed the Iranian issue even once - though an assault on Iran would mean war, missiles on Tel Aviv and many deaths. According to Eitan, the decision on whether to attack will be made solely by Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak, in concert with the military brass; the other ministers won't be involved.

What is most remarkable, however, is that Eitan supports this unusual method of decision making: In his view, it is appropriate and even healthy.

The decision to launch the Second Lebanon War in the summer of 2006 was also made solely by then-prime minister Ehud Olmert. Within minutes of learning that two soldiers had been abducted along the northern border, Olmert decided to teach Hezbollah a lesson. Later, the cabinet backed him automatically: Not a single minister expressed opposition or proposed alternatives.

Students who pursue degrees in business administration are taught to reach decisions the right way: to prepare the relevant information and present it in a timely fashion, to hold a discussion in which all opinions will be heard and unorthodox views that challenge the accepted wisdom will even be encouraged. Since we live in an uncertain world, every decision has a number of possible outcomes of varying probabilities. So students are also given another course, decision theory, which trains them to build a "decision tree" that includes all the possible solutions, their possible outcomes and these outcomes' probability, and then to calculate which decision will produce the greatest value.

But as we have learned from Deri, Eitan and Olmert, our government doesn't need an organized process of decision-making. They also don't need to hear other opinions. In our country, the decision is invariably made by two individuals - the prime minister and the defense minister. But if so, why do we need the other 28 ministers?