Charles Freilich, a senior fellow at Harvard University's Kennedy School and former deputy national security adviser for the Israeli government, discusses his new book, Zion's Dilemmas: How Israel Makes National Security Policy.
In your book you write that "Israel’s DMP (decision making process) is increasingly inadequate to the demands placed on it by the nation’s extraordinarily difﬁcult external circumstances". Can you please give one or two examples where a better "process" might have led to a better decision?
The cases where a better process might have led to a better decision are legion, but to give just a couple of examples, the Lebanon wars in 1982 and 2006 were clearly cases where a better process might have significantly increased the prospects of Israel actually achieving its objectives at the time. In both cases the objectives were very poorly defined and so not surprisingly, only partially achieved. In the case of the Gaza disengagement, Sharon decided first that he wanted to withdraw and only then, after making the fundamental decision, turned to the National Security Council to help him develop the concept behind it. The NSC asked for a couple of weeks to suggest alternative policies that might have better achieved the objectives Sharon set out, but he simply refused to even consider this. There are many, many more examples.
But is Israel's problem really a "mechanical" DMP problem, or a more elusive problem of lack of leadership?
For the most part, I believe that Israel has had relatively strong leaders in recent decades – Rabin, Peres, Barak, Sharon, even Olmert - and each of them launched daring peace initiatives and in some cases major military ones as well. The fundamental problem is that Israel has been undergoing a political crisis in recent decades, the ongoing divide regarding the future of the West Bank, with policy oscillating back and forth between moderate/dovish governments and more hardline ones, but the problem has not really been one of leadership. Having said that, I believe that the leaders could have derived great benefit from a far better decision-making process. This is not "mechanical". While it is true that a good process does not by any means guarantee a better outcome, it should certainly increase the prospects of this happening. If one does not accept this fundamental axiom, it makes no difference how one goes about making decisions.
You constantly complain in your book that a "politicized" process makes it harder for the PM to make the decisions. In your words in just one of the chapters: "An inherent result of the coalition system, the weakness of the premier’s ofﬁce has been a growing problem in recent decades, as party coherence has further diminished and the overall politicization of the DMP has increased". But is it not a common feature for government bureaucrats to blame "politicians" for mixing politics with policy, when in fact the essence of democratic politics is the insertion of politics into the policy making process?
Politics are an integral part of the process in all countries and are actually a good thing; politics are how we, as the citizens of a democracy, turn the diverse opinions of some 8 million people into a final policy choice, so I have no problem with politics per se. The problem is the degree of politicization in Israel. In presidential systems, the president is guaranteed a full four-year term and is far more capable of leading the nation in chosen directions, again with clear political limitations. In other parliamentary systems leaders also enjoy greater power and longevity in office than in Israel. The problem in Israel is that the proportional representation system has played out in a way that leads to great instability, prime ministers are fighting for their political lives from the moment they are elected and have to invest inordinate efforts to ensure their very political survival and to get approval for their preferred policies. The Prime Minister in Israel has absolutely minimal formal authority – his formal prerogatives are almost nonexistent compared to other leaders – and so his ability to lead is almost entirely a function of his political skills and his political clout at any given time. In Israel's coalition governments the criterion for decision-making is not what is judged to be the best policy, in terms of Israel's overall national benefit, but the lowest common denominator, "what will fly", what will gain minimal cabinet approval, not the best solution.
Of all the many faults that you find in Israel's system - among them "feudal fiefdoms", "groupthink", "faulty information processing" - what changes are realistic and feasible in the current political atmosphere?
What we really need is fundamental electoral reform, but that is not going to happen for the foreseeable future, probably not for long time. Given that that is the case, what is needed is to strengthen some of the civilian national security bureaucracies, first and foremost the National Security Council and the Foreign Ministry, so that they can present alternative options to those now presented virtually solely by the IDF. The IDF usually does great work, but no government should ever be dependent on only one source of policy recommendations. In addition to this reform, the inter agency process can and should be improved.
Can you give an example of a decision that was well-planned and executed, and explain why the one you picked stands out as an exemplary outlier?
I will give you two very different ones. Barak’s decision-making process leading up to the Camp David Summit with the Palestinians and then to the Clinton Parameters was very good, all issues were studied in depth, objectives and priorities defined, alternative options for achieving them explored exhaustively. Unfortunately, the result was a tragic collapse of the peace process, but this was because it takes "two to tango" and even the best decision-making process is dependent on the behavior of the other side. Paradoxically, Begin’s decision-making process leading up to the Camp David Summit with Egypt in 1978 was abysmal, but nonetheless led to a very good outcome. The second example of a good process is, I believe, regarding the Iranian nuclear program. Whatever the Israeli government ultimately decides to do, attack or not attack, the decision will be very controversial, some will believe it to be grossly misguided in any event, but this will not be for lack of a good process. I can think of no other case in which more exhaustive consideration has been given to every aspect of the issue, objectives and priorities more carefully defined, and options explored.
All in all, and considering the many achievements of Israel, do you think its decision making process is exceptionally problematic when it is compared to similar processes and achievements of other countries?
There is no doubt that Israel is a national success story by virtually every measure, social, economic, political and military. We have a great deal to be very proud of. In many areas the failings of the Israeli decision-making process are very similar to those found in other countries, including the US, which probably has the most sophisticated decision-making process of any country. I have no doubt that any student of American, British or French government would find much of what I write in the book about Israel quite familiar. The problem, however, is that we can simply not afford to allow ourselves to be like everyone else – the threats Israel faces remain daunting and just as we have achieved operational excellence, we must also achieve decision-making excellence. We owe it to ourselves and can demand no less. The criticisms of the process in the book – and there are many – stem from an abiding love for Israel and consequent desire to contribute something to improving our national security.