Israeli Cabinet Members visit the Golan Heights, February 2018 (Kobi Gideon, Government Press Office of Israel)
Israel commands inordinate attention—relative to its size—in international media and fora and in the study of international and Middle Eastern politics. Much ink has been spilled on Israeli defense and foreign policy outputs. Much less has been spilled on how the Israeli national security constellation is actually structured and how it functions, as well as how these factors affect the nature and quality of decisions and policies produced.
For a country which is ostensibly so familiar to Western experts, Israel’s policy-making structures and processes are surprisingly unclear. While many of the formal components of a national security apparatus exist—Security Cabinet, National Security Advisor and Staff, Defense Ministry, Foreign Ministry, intelligence and security services, and even Strategic Affairs and Intelligence Ministries—the whole can actually be less than the sum of its parts Understanding of the Israeli system is lacking both abroad and within Israel; like many things, people think they know more about it than they do. Relations between Israel and the United States, in particular, have entered a phase where the two sides need to understand each other more intimately and not just assume they know each other “like brothers.” The systems are superficially alike, but are in fact very different, and not only because of the different political systems. The Ministry of Defense sounds like the Department of Defense, the Chief of General Staff of the Israel Defense Forces sounds like the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the National Security Staff sounds like the National Security Council. The Pol-Mil Division at the Ministry of Defense sounds like it should be similar in form and function to the Office of the Undersecretary for Policy in the Pentagon, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs seems like the State Department, and the Planning Directorate of the General Staff even calls itself J5. But even the words “Government” and “Cabinet” mean different things in the two systems.
What this paper sets out to do is help both those who interact with official Israeli interlocutors, those who simply want more insight into Israeli national security policy-making, and those who wish to understand the detailed working and the organizational politics within the Israeli system. The same questions are always crucial in understanding, engaging, or influencing another complex actor: Who are the players? What does each player want: what are their interests, agendas, and priorities? What assets (positive and negative) and influence do they possess? What are the relationships and balance of forces among them? Who is important?
There are many players in the Israeli system, often with overlapping mandates. Official titles and definitions are often a poor guide to the actual significance of an individual or organizational actor. A European ambassador in Israel was quoted in 2015 as saying: “There is a lot of confusion over who we are supposed to work with in this government. There are too many players and too many sensitivities.”
The purpose of this study is to describe and diagnose carefully the Israeli national security establishment as it is now. It is not to prescribe cures for real or imagined ills: it is not clear that the system can, or should be, “fixed.” Nevertheless, a deep understanding of the structure and process is important in and of itself in order to understand what can and cannot be expected from it. This study also serves as a map for insiders and outsiders alike on who the significant actors are and how the system can be negotiated and “played” in order to get things done. In Morton Halperin’s seminal work, Bureaucratic Politics and Foreign Policy, he noted that “bureaucrats can make use of the skills of their trade in increasing their influence. . . . Staff skill is in part a matter of knowledge, of ‘understanding’ in detail how the system works.” It is also important to identify the key aspects of political, strategic, and bureaucratic culture which shape the system as well as the most significant pathologies and bottlenecks which actually may be susceptible to amelioration.
The paper will introduce and examine, in turn, each of the bureaucratic players in the Israeli national security constellation, paying attention to its relative power and influence and its interactions with other players. It will then make some general observations and conclusions regarding the Israeli national security system.