Ronen Zvulun / Reuters Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at the opening of the winter session of the Knesset, Jerusalem, October 23, 2017.

A Mess at the Knesset

Power Plays and Brinkmanship Are Endangering Israel's National Security

Over the last year, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been embroiled in a series of corruption scandals involving his family and close associates. His legal troubles, however, are not merely his personal problem but a test of his country’s resilience.

In early January, Israeli investigators recommended bringing charges against Netanyahu for bribery, fraud, and breach of trust. During this time, the government has fallen into disarray, as members of Netanyahu’s own coalition have seized upon his vulnerability, advancing aggressive agendas that cater primarily to their constituencies. This frantic power play has exposed the faults within Israel’s political system, particularly the way in which it accommodates reckless behaviors that serve narrow partisan goals rather than broad, national objectives. At a time when the country must unify, with the Middle East roiled in conflict and an emboldened Iran testing its regional power, Israel does not need yet another threat to its national security. What Israel needs is to better insulate policy from politics.

WHEN POLITICS DICTATE POLICY

The Knesset begins its summer session next week, and with the real possibility of a snap election, legislators are eager to score political points. The Jewish Home party, led by Education Minister Naftali Bennett and Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, is pushing for the passage of a bill that would limit the capacity of Israel’s Supreme Court to nullify laws it deems problematic. A second bill would discriminate against those who convert to Judaism in Israel through auspices other than officially sanctioned religious courts.

Both could have severe repercussions for Israel’s national security. Curbing the power of the Israeli Supreme Court could harm Israel’s stature before the International Criminal Court. In the past, when Israel-related allegations have been referred to the ICC, Israel invoked the principle of complementarity to assert its jurisdiction. This principle obliges the ICC to defer the prosecution of international crimes to national courts, unless they are “unwilling or unable to genuinely carry out proceedings.” Impinging on the Israeli Supreme Court’s autonomy could weaken Israel’s ability to invoke complementarity and thus limit its freedom to conduct its own investigations. 

Exacerbating the distrust between progressive Jews and the State of Israel, which the conversion crisis has already done, will likewise damage the country’s national security. The loss of core support, especially in the United States, for the Jewish state will jeopardize the diplomatic and economic benefits it has enjoyed, owing in part to the spirited advocacy of local Jewish communities in the United States. 

In a dangerous show of political brinkmanship, some of Israel’s ultra-Orthodox lawmakers recently threatened to oppose the 2019 budget unless yeshiva students were exempted from the military draft. Only the emergence of a late-hour compromise spared Israel the chaos of early elections. Had Israelis gone to the polls, matters of substance would have taken a back seat to the campaign, with important national decisions and projects left for Israel’s next government.

Netanyahu has mollified his overexuberant colleagues on the right mostly by acquiescing to their demands in the domestic sphere. The recent conscription standoff ended with allowances concerning the delicate balance of religion and state. Also folded into the deal was a commitment to advance the treatment of the Nation-State Bill, a piece of legislation that would deem Israel a “Jewish state with a democratic regime” as opposed to a “Jewish and democratic state.”

Internal strife weakens the identification of Israelis with their national project and the integrity of Israeli society.

Both of these moves will impact national security. Internal strife—exacerbated whenever the Knesset tinkers with Judaism’s role in the public life of the Jewish state—weakens the identification of Israelis with their national project and the integrity of Israeli society. Other pieces of proposed legislation involving Israel’s presence in the West Bank affect the country’s volatile posture vis-à-vis its Palestinian neighbors.

Although Netanyahu has generally been loath to employ Israel’s formidable strength in battle, his political wrangling has inflicted harm on the country’s global reputation. In April, after succumbing to pressure from his core supporters, Netanyahu reneged on a deal with the United Nations to absorb African migrants from other Western countries. Evoking memories of earlier decisions to place (and then remove) metal detectors on the Temple Mount and introduce (and then abrogate) modified prayer arrangements at the Western Wall, he again allowed political considerations to dictate policy—and damage Israel’s credibility in the process. If Israel’s word cannot be taken at face value, it will be difficult for fellow states to interact with its government.

DEPLETED INSTITUTIONS AND AN INEXPERIENCED CABINET

What currently ails Israel’s political system is not new. Israel’s parliamentary democracy encourages prime ministers to constantly choose between what’s good for the country and what’s good for their political survival. It’s not simply enough for the party of a would-be prime minister to capture the most votes. It must also trade spoils in order to both attain and maintain power. 

After the results are tabulated, Israel’s president canvasses all factions represented in the incoming Knesset—it now counts 11 distinct groupings—to determine which candidate is best positioned to compose a new government. Therefore, even before assuming power, any premier is already beholden to his or her rivals for this preliminary declaration of support.

The horse-trading kicks into even higher gear after the president selects the nominee for prime minister, who then begins courting other parties to form a new coalition. This is the stage when key leadership positions are apportioned and the country’s new rulers angle for prize chunks of the executive pie. 

Once the new government is sworn in, the prime minister’s continued survival in office depends on keeping its members satisfied. Netanyahu’s margin of safety today is just his six-seat majority in Israel’s 120-seat legislature. Three of his Likud party’s five partners could each bring him down independently if one of them backed a motion of nonconfidence and named a candidate to replace him. This makes the prime minister beholden to the compulsions of frenemies who hold the keys to his cabinet. When discussions now resume on the enlistment issue, for example, ultra-Orthodox ministers are certain to leverage their demands by making an implicit threat to defect to the opposition. 

Israel’s security cabinet, which is charged with the country’s most pressing matters of defense and foreign policy, is a political construct. Its agenda falls under the premier’s purview, and votes are cast by politicians who are awarded ministerial portfolios by virtue of their party affiliation rather than their expertise. (Other than Netanyahu and Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, nobody on the current roster has ever served as prime minister, foreign minister, or defense minister.)

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Knesset, Jerusalem, March 12, 2018.

Then there is the debilitating weakness of Israel’s National Security Council (NSC). It was founded in the Prime Minister’s Office in 1999, but its remit wasn’t anchored in law until 2008. To date, its functions have been almost impossible to perform because it must focus on fighting political battles while also crafting sound policy. During my years in government, I witnessed NSC chiefs in direct competition with the prime minister’s personal assistants, who would often take evasive actions to sideline the NSC. Its attempts to coordinate the policy process were spurned by older sister agencies. Various ministries were known to boycott NSC meetings, impairing the quality of the body’s output.

The challenge to professionalism is compounded by the marginalization of more entrenched government units. Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs is notoriously underfunded and understaffed. The country’s most sensitive foreign interactions—including its relations with the United States—are, in fact, managed directly out of the Prime Minister’s Office, creating confusion when uninformed embassy staff members attempt to conclude business in parallel. And today, with Netanyahu serving concurrently as foreign minister, the ministry lacks an independent advocate.

The one exception to this rule is Israel’s defense establishment. The impact of the Israel Defense Forces on the policy process in Israel is without match. With an unparalleled budget and pool of expertise, the IDF is the foremost repository of the country’s long-term planning. Although its civilian counterparts engage incessantly in putting out fires, uniformed service members enjoy the resources needed to invest in staff work. Their analysis, and that of their colleagues from within the intelligence community, carries persuasive weight. For example, in 2010, Netanyahu and his defense minister, Ehud Barak, reportedly planned to strike Iran’s nuclear infrastructure, but a united front of successive IDF chiefs of staff and Mossad and Shin Bet directors coalesced in opposition. Israel’s air force remained grounded.

Still, the overall effect of Israel’s political system is that prime ministers face little resistance to implementing their personal priorities. Today, the only genuine restraints on Netanyahu’s judgment—up against depleted institutional stakeholders and a largely inexperienced, deferential cabinet—are his conscience and the advice of generals. It is largely these two factors that mitigate his ability to gamble imprudently with Israel’s national security, if he feels so inclined. It is a precarious scenario.

THE NEED FOR A STEADY HAND

In the interest of its national security, Israel needs to better shield policy from politics. Its democracy is not well served when the cacophony of voices impedes elected leaders from governing responsibly. The imperative to constantly appease political allies creates an impossible situation where prime ministers have been forced too often to choose between their interests and their country’s.

For all its faults, the U.S. presidential system does employ the enviable framework of a cabinet that serves “at the pleasure of the president.” Its members are not occupied with more parochial concerns such as reelection. Israel is unlikely to adopt the U.S. model, but it can make changes to depoliticize governance.

The overall effect of Israel's political system is that prime ministers face little resistance to implementing their personal priorities.

The electoral threshold that Israel sets for parties to qualify for parliamentary seats is currently at 3.25 percent. (Netanyahu has maneuvered to lower the bar to only two percent.) This remains below the standard set by some European parliaments, such as in Germany and Norway, which have required parties to win four to five percent of electoral votes, respectively. Israel should raise its threshold to comparable levels. At the moment, the lower bar guarantees the assembly of a splintered coalition that is distracted by its need to satisfy a multiplicity of demands. Consolidating a smaller number of larger parties—which would order their priorities—would provide greater discipline and stability in government. Setting prime ministerial term limits is another tactic worth contemplating.

Israel should also strengthen all branches of executive authority to ensure a more robust policy process. Collective responsibility requires that informed decisions be made not solely by the prime minister and his tight circle of advisers. Fellow ministers should be more than rubber stamps and, for that purpose, need to be tutored in relevant fields of expertise.

In 2016, Netanyahu took a step in the right direction by creating a committee to reform the security cabinet. Headed by former National Security Adviser Yaakov Amidror, the panel recommended that national security liaisons be tasked to give regular briefings to security cabinet members, who would also be invited to annual IDF general staff exercises. However, the panel also pushed forward an amendment that would enable the security cabinet to make national security decisions, such as going to war, without the consent of the full government. This change should be reconsidered since it would undermine the government’s oversight function and eliminate an important check on power.

Civilian bureaucracies such as the Ministry of Foreign Affairs also have an important role to play in strengthening Israel’s national security. They should be cultivated as counterweights to an overpowering security establishment. Their valuable inputs, generated by diplomats in the field, are a critical component to performing accurate situation assessments and formulating appropriate responses to challenges such as those regularly posed to Israel by the UN system. The inclusion of these perspectives is vital for all decision-makers. 

The Middle East has a full docket for the next few weeks, including elections in Lebanon, U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision on whether to reinstate sanctions against Iran, and the opening of the new American embassy in Jerusalem. Navigating these events will require a steady hand in Israel. With less ability, obligation, and temptation to play politics, Israel’s statesman in chief will have fewer excuses to act unstatesmanlike.

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