North Africa, West Asia

Israel’s wars: decisions for the few

In many ways this is a “nation in arms”, in a constant situation of no war, no peace. Now, the Prime Minister and his Defense Minister can wage war without consultation.

Davide Pernice
30 May 2018

Avigdor Liberman and Benjamin Netanyahu on a poster calling for social justice, 2012. Wikicommons/Oren Rozen. Some rights reserved.

As Israel faced increasing tensions at the Gaza border fence, with the Iranian nuclear deal, and with Iran’s proxies in Syria, the Israeli Parliament passed an amended text to the Basic Law enabling “under extreme circumstance” the Prime Minister and the Defense Minister to wage war alone. It thus removes the requirements for the government’s full approval of large-scale military operations. 

The legislation, approved by 62 votes in favour and 41 against, passed while Prime Minister Netanyahu was regaling the media with the results of the Israeli intelligence investigation into Iran’s nuclear prospects. But one of the law’s main inspirers – former national security advisor Yaakov Amidror – insisted that speculation about the two events being interrelated were unfounded. 

Still, and not necessarily because of its concurrency with Netanyahu’s flamboyant press conference, this reform to the Basic Law has provoked some severe and even trenchant comments from strategic-security echelons. In Yesh Atid political party (centre), some politicians referred to the text as “insane”, and renowned security scholar and former Member of Parliament Yehuda Ben Meir judged it as point-black “inappropriate”. Reasons for concern are presumably grounded, given that the Knesset’s joint committees on Foreign Affairs and Defense, and on Constitution, Law and Justice had initially rejected the bill that later passed in plenum, and through a relatively narrow majority (below 52%). 

The legislation’s spearheads, Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked and Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee chairman Avi Dichter, argue that the move adapts Israel “to the present state security requirements”. But impudently enough, both in the adopted text and ensuing declarations, the proponents resort to non-committal expressions such as “extreme circumstance” and “present state security requirements” which hold no substantial significance, for the fundamental reason that Israel lacks any formal national security doctrine. Israel’s national security concept relies in fact on customary norms and tenets most of which are themselves often subject to harsh and still unresolved domestic debate. 

In addition, most of Israel’s security and defense decision-making process machinery is not public information; and where it is, what counts more is the personal character and political weight of the relevant actor within the top security entourage (prime minister, defense minister, chief-of-staff, with their respective offices) rather than his formal seat and related prerogatives in the cabinet and security apparatus. Procedures and mandates are loosely framed, allowing for a non-negligible degree of arbitrariness in moulding decision-making dynamics between the core actors. 

The new legislation removes all political oversight on salient choices such as waging war, or embarking on moves that can lead to conflict. Before, in order to initiate some significant military action the Prime Minister had to consult and obtain the accordance of the whole Cabinet of Ministers. Under the current configuration, the much smaller and largely undefined Security Cabinet is itself enough in providing the green light to military operations. A last-minute, controversial addition – furthermore -specifies that when some unspecified “extreme circumstance” requires immediate response, the Prime Minister, alone and by informing the Defense Minister, can wage war. 

Overemphasis on security concerns is far from uncommon in Israel’s societal debate. It may be rightly said that in many ways this is a “nation in arms”, and living in a constant situation of no war, no peace. 

The 1948 Declaration of Independence solemnly recited that state independence is born “out of betachon in the Rock of Israel”, whereby the Hebrew term betachon may refer either to “faith”, as faith in a superior entity, or, more precisely, to “security”, as in military and strategic security. At the peak of the 1948-49 War of Independence, David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s funding father, admitted adamantly: “I am not capable of seeing anything now other than through the prism of security…Security is involved in all branches of life”. 

Some twenty years later, following the Six Day War and consequent occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, the security concept would be bestowed with the highest responsibility of entrenching a novel narrative, congruent with the territorial landscape now extending beyond the 1949 armistice line. Despite the countless attempts over the years and decades, resulting in innumerable failures and few scanty successes at trying to reach some negotiated final status agreement, today the notion of Israeli national security seems mostly devoted to status quo preferences: those advocating Israel’s unique notion of “permanent temporariness” in exercising the occupation and dispossession of vast lands in the ‘territories’. 

It is on security grounds, indeed, that today both the Israeli civil and military echelons tend to reject pledges for territorial compromise based on the 1949 armistice line (or proportionate land-swaps). Their argument is mainly, although not exclusively, security-centred: the neat juridical, political, and spatial separation of Jewish-Israeli settlers from Palestinians (autochthons and refugees) is a way to secure and possibly foster colonial permanence, thus ensuring prolonged if not permanent strategic depth to Israel’s security apparatus and rapid reaction force, far beyond the indefensible 1949 Green Line.  

The paradox of Israel is a remarkable one: a state which is so dismayingly concerned with its ontological survival, so deeply preoccupied with security as the sole non-commendable dimension in decision-making; and yet, where the national security doctrine relies on surprisingly weak, nearly non-existent foundations. In this frame, the Shaker-Dichter Law is no help, for it adds a novel layer of indeterminateness to already shady decision-making proceedings. 

The new bill further overstretches the adaptability of the national security concept to politically collateral objectives as, in this case, the rebalancing of executive security and defense powers within the cabinet, and to the advantages of its chairman. With this move, and in the absence of some properly defined minimal security threshold, the very conceptualization of national security is now mandated to the sole and impromptu calculations of the Prime Minister with a dozen civil and military servants, when not to him alone: a rather questionable path for a nation whose faith is said to be born out of the betachon “in the Rock of Israel”, rather than “in Israel’s temporary king alone”.   

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