Is There a Future for Israel’s National Security Council?

By and September 5, 2012

BESA Center Perspectives Paper No. 180

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: The establishment of a properly-functioning and effective National Security Council (NSC) as a central function within the Israeli Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) has been attempted for more than forty years, but only recently implemented. Under Prof. Uzi Arad, the NSC became a central player in the Netanyahu administration, growing significantly in size, professionalism, and areas of responsibility, and working in close proximity to the prime minister. Its main achievement is the quiet integration of foreign affairs, defense, and intelligence inputs for the prime minister and the other top decision-makers in the government. At the same time, NSC effectiveness remains hampered by occasional turf battles over certain responsibilities between the NSC and the defense minister, the IDF, and the intelligence services.

This Perspective Paper is based upon presentations given at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies on August 26, 2012 by Prof. Uzi Arad and Mr. Amos Harel.

Prof. Uzi Arad: Over the past decade, Israel’s security and foreign policy dilemmas have become ever more acute and complex. Israeli prime ministers face an intense and overwhelmingly-demanding defense decision-making environment. They cannot handle this task without professional and sophisticated staff work that integrates and analyzes all of the relevant military, intelligence, and foreign relations input and produces organized policy options for the elected political officials.

Over the past three years, during my tenure as National Security Advisor (NSA) and head of the NSC under Prime Minister Netanyahu, and into the tenure of my successor, Maj. Gen. (res.) Yaacov Amidror, I believe that significant and irreversible progress has been made in turning the Israeli NSC into a permanent and indispensable fixture within the national security and foreign policy decision-making environment. There is no turning back. The NSC is now deeply rooted and well-established within the Israeli national security establishment. The greatest proof of this is the fact that the NSC has passed the test of succession: The prime minister’s reliance on the NSC has continued beyond my tenure into the tenure of my successor.

The NSC’s essential role is to broker integration of all national security system elements in the policy making process. To this end, it must ensure that decision-makers are presented with carefully-thought-through policy options, and that all relevant stakeholders are present and their views clarified before reaching the decision-makers’ table. Carefully weighed alternative options are necessary to improve creative problem-solving and enhance the discussion of each alternative. The process of thinking through solutions in terms of objectives can yield better policies and sometimes even surprising results.

The NSC must navigate the interface between the professional and political levels in the national security field with grace and acumen, facilitating constructive dialog and feedback. It should honestly transmit the national security system’s inputs to the decision-makers, highlighting commonalities and differences when they exist. These roles are shared among similar organizations around the world, but are even more vital in Israel, where the center of activity is divided between Jerusalem (home to the PMO, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and Ministry of Justice) and Tel Aviv (the headquarters of most security and intelligence agencies, the IDF, and Ministry of Defense).

Indeed, since 2009 we have capitalized on the responsibility the 2008 National Security Council Act gave us of preparing, facilitating, and planning all ministerial national security related forums. This process started in 2008, but expanded significantly since 2009. Today, the NSC sets the agenda and participants (with the approval of the prime minister) of all meetings of the National Security Cabinet as well as all other sub-cabinet forums. The NSC also prepares background material, briefing papers, and policy memos with multiple options for decisions when appropriate. Several important national security issues have already been discussed using this NSC-led system.

The need for integration is even more prominent during crises, and the NSC under my tenure accelerated the creation of a situation room that would facilitate the prime minister’s and cabinet’s activities during crises. Following several real-life tests (for example, the 2010 Carmel forest fires), the NSC’s situation room has significantly expanded and it became fully operational in 2011.

Central to the progress in the role of the NSC in recent years has been the fact that the head of the NSC serves as the prime minister’s National Security Advisor and, since 2009, as his main foreign policy advisor. I cannot stress enough how critical this is. Before 2009, the foreign policy advisor position, a role I fulfilled in Netanyahu’s first tenure, was the one facilitating and managing all diplomatic activities of the prime minister, as well as his main advisor on decisions and processes. In 2004 Maj. Gen. (res.) Giora Eiland named this phenomenon the “filled-out boxes” – pertaining to the challenge of the NSC’s tasks being done by others and the fact that other people’s responsibilities within the PMO experienced no change following the establishment of the NSC in 1999.

When I took office, I knew that in order to fulfill the roles and missions specified by the new NSC Act, I had to insist on the transfer of these responsibilities to the NSC. In Israel’s foreign and defense relations, so much is decided based on direct conversations between the prime minister and his counterparts abroad, including the President of the United States. The NSA must be a full participant in these conversations so that he has the full picture of activities and policies. His presence in the room alone drastically changes the reality of the situation and significantly increases coordination.

Another key element contributing to the advancement of the NSC was the high level interagency forum first established and managed by former PMO Director-General Yoram Turbovitch (called the “Turbovitch Forum”). This was a coordinating mechanism whose members were the top professionals in relevant agencies and ministries dealing with national security affairs (Ministry of Defense, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Mossad, GSS, IDF, and Military Intelligence), that met regularly to openly discuss and coordinate matters on the highest professional level.

As NSA and head of the NSC it was clear to me that the NSC should lead and manage this forum, and key members of the forum approached me to convey the same idea. Since then, the NSC has become the convener of this forum, to a large extent an equivalent of the US “Deputies Committee,” which meets regularly and has become a vital vehicle for policy coordination integration in times of peace and crisis. The deliberations of the forum are tightly held and the contributions of members remain confidential to ensure maximum openness.

Another major factor was location. National security decisions in Israel are usually taken in one of two locations: the prime minister’s chambers, or the cabinet room. In order to fulfill his other duties, the NSA and head of the NSC must also be situated in the closest proximity to the prime minister, within the “aquarium” (the inner sanctum of offices in the PMO). Physical proximity results in presence and availability that are vital for integrating the work of the NSC in the daily activities of the prime minister. During the years that the NSC resided in Ramat Hasharon, far from Jerusalem, the distance was geographical and conceptual, and the NSC was simply not part of the prime minister’s daily deliberations. This distance kept my able predecessors largely out of the prime minister’s inner loop.

The American NSC head has his office within the West Wing and directly across the hall from the president, allowing for close cooperation with the president. So too the changed location of the office of the NSA within the Israeli “aquarium” – achieved only when I took office under Prime Minister Netanyahu – proved to be key to the NSC’s overall upgraded status.

In my efforts to upgrade the NSC, I based myself on the work done by able predecessors. Maj. Gen. (res.) David Ivri established in 1999 the first version of the Israeli NSC. After the 2006 Lebanon war, the Winograd Commission concluded, inter alia, that the NSC needs to become a more prominent player in the national security decision-making process in order to ensure the quality of decisions. The Lipkin-Shahak Committee’s excellent recommendations later led to the passing of the National Security Council law of 2008. My predecessor, Brig. Gen. (res.) Dani Arditi, did yeomen’s work in planning the implementation of the new law and embarking on an organizational reform that I later adjusted to the changing circumstances.

It is interesting to note that half of the heads of the NSC to date have been drawn from Israeli intelligence agencies. This is a testimony to the depth of national security knowledge that exists in these agencies, but also to the prime minister’s need for better intelligence support. In order to further enhance the quality of the policy process, I think that the prime minister needs even more control over the flow of intelligence, and would be well served in the future by a senior advisor for intelligence matters that would operate side by side to and in concert with the NSA.

Today, it is quite clear that the NSC is and has become a crucial and central body in the PMO. The NSA’s role has been integrated in the surroundings of the prime minister, and this leads to increased cooperation by other national security agencies and institutions. However, the task is yet to be complete, and the NSC needs to increase its role in the national security decision-making process on all issues and encompassing all formal and informal regular forums. The NSC should also continue to improve the quality of its work and personnel, and strive for excellence. It should adopt new methods of thinking about policy problems and opportunities, some of which had been adopted by similar players around the world. A key example here is risk management and different methods for evaluating and weighing risks and policy options that could alleviate or trade-off risks. The NSC could use these methods to enrich policy deliberations and ensure careful thought is given to every alternative option when fateful decisions are at stake.

Effective integration of policy and intelligence at the top is thus necessary for our government’s continued ability to address acute, complex, and rapidly changing challenges. I believe we are on the right track to achieving this goal.

Mr. Amos Harel: I agree that the NSC is important, but perhaps we need to look at the organization through a more realistic lens. The problem is not the NSC itself but rather the power struggles waged between the NSC and other agencies in the defense and security establishment. The problem is that we cannot separate the people and personalities involved in the process from the way the system should ideally work. Prof. Arad himself mentioned that there were many disputes between the different agencies. The defense minister and the prime minister’s military secretary were not happy when the NSC chairman moved to his current PMO office, immediately adjacent to the prime minister’s office.

An example of the ensuring difficulties was highlighted in the state comptroller’s report on government decision-making leading up to the flotilla affair in 2010. The report reinforces the importance of organized staff work and decision-making meetings that Prof. Arad was always insisting upon, but also makes clear that such proper and professional discussions basically did not take place because other security officials refused to fully cooperate in Prof. Arad’s efforts.

The major issue with the NSC, a problem that applies to other areas of Israeli bureaucracy, is that the reality of the political environment which limits the NSC’s legal abilities. The NSC may have the authority and permission to act in a certain way, but such action is reliant on cooperation from the other military and intelligence agencies, which it does not always receive. The other agencies do not necessarily view the NSC as the prime minister’s best option regarding defense and security matters.

Looking back at previous NSC chairmen, we can discern a varying array of relationships between the NSC and army. David Ivri, the first chairman, did not maximize his potential in my opinion. Uzi Dayan and Giora Eiland came from the military, not the intelligence services. Eiland in particular had to contend with forces close to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon that looked to diminish the NSC chairman’s influence on the prime minister. Others were not very active chairmen and were often kept in the dark by the prime minister’s staff, sometimes learning information from the media as opposed to internal discussion. By contrast, Uzi Arad was centrally involved in Netanyahu decision-making and well-respected, but he had difficulties in getting cooperation from the other agencies. Ultimately, a lot depends on the relationship between the prime minister himself and the chairman of the NSC.

In short, the NSC definitely is important and necessary. I only question how effective it is in reality because of the political battles being waged around it. It doesn’t seem like it is being utilized to its fullest potential.

BESA Center Perspectives Papers are published through the generosity of the Greg Rosshandler Family

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Prof. Uzi Arad

Prof. Uzi Arad was National Security Advisor to Israel’s Prime Minister and Head of the NSC from 2009 to 2011. Between 1997-1999, he was the prime minister’s Foreign Policy Advisor, and before that he served with the Mossad, both in Israel and abroad, his last position being Director of Intelligence. Arad's record of upgrading the NSC during his tenure was hailed by the Comptroller General in his June report on the implementation of the 2008 National Security Act.

Amos Harel

Amos Harel is the chief military correspondent for the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, and one of the leading Israeli media experts on military and defense issues. His second book (co-authored with Avi Issacharoff) “34 Days: Israel, Hezbollah and the War in Lebanon” was a best-seller in Hebrew, and its English translation won the Chechic award in 2009.