Editor’s Notes: Next year, we need to stop ‘winging it’

By David Horovitz September 22, 2006

Giora Eiland, just resigned as national security adviser, says the dysfunctional nature of governance in Israel made his work impossible. A jaw-dropping, deeply worrying interview…

It has been a good few years since I divested myself of the illusion that the people who are running things here know exactly what they are doing. But still, every now and again, my confidence that at least the more elementary matters are handled competently is jolted afresh.

It happened a few weeks ago, when I interviewed the former deputy Chief of General Staff, former minister and now plain old Labor Knesset member Matan Vilna’i and he charted the yawning disconnect between the senior military and political hierarchies that so complicates the national decision-making process. It happened again last week when, even though I knew there wasn’t much of a public diplomacy operation at the Prime Minister’s Office, new spokeswoman Miri Eisin detailed the pitiful paucity of resources there. And now it’s happened again, in an interview with Maj.-Gen. (res.) Giora Eiland, the just-resigned head of the National Security Council, who is now finishing up his work at the council’s offices outside Tel Aviv before entering civilian life.

Eiland says, essentially, that he quit this theoretically vital position in despair after two years, because the dysfunctional nature of governance in Israel made his work impossible.

Eiland is a serious player – a former head of IDF Operations and of IDF planning with a career that stretches back to fighting in the Yom Kippur War and participating in the Entebbe rescue three years later. He is a clear and original thinker, and one of his indisputable strengths is in strategic planning. His critique makes for heavy reading, but I think it’s worth setting down, even or perhaps especially at Rosh Hashana.

We all know more than enough about the yihyeh beseder syndrome – the particularly Israeli confidence that, no matter how bleak the situation, everything will turn out fine in the end. But the war with Hizbullah wasn’t beseder. And not everything is working out fine in terms of thwarting Iran, dealing with the Palestinians or fixing our domestic disharmonies and inequalities.

Full solutions to these and other challenges might not have emerged even from the most methodical and efficient processes of analysis and preparation in the high reaches of government. But those processes, it becomes ever clearer, are so often conspicuous by their absence. The yihyeh beseder complacency seems to have produced a tendency to make it up as we go along, to ‘wing it’ – a reliance, rather than adequate preparation, on our nation’s distinctive flair for innovation, our courage and our solidarity to get us out of even the most horrendous scrapes.

As Eiland rightly notes in the context of the war with Hizbullah, that’s no way to run things. ‘Winging it’ won’t do. 5767 needs to be the year to try ‘planning it’ instead.

THE CABINET that met on July 12 could have made one of three decisions, says Eiland. ‘One possibility was for a two- or three-day air operation, hitting Hizbullah as much as possible, hitting Beirut, hitting Lebanese infrastructure. There would have been an immediate international demand for a cease-fire, including from Hizbullah, and we would have agreed. It wouldn’t have got the soldiers back. It wouldn’t have destroyed Hizbullah. But it would have been punishment and it would have created deterrence and they would have thought twice about any future such action against us.

‘The second possibility,’ he goes on, ‘was to decide that Hizbullah had to be more severely hurt militarily. Any such action would require sending ground forces at least as far as the Litani. The decision would have been for a two- or three-week operation. There would have been a call-up of the reserves because it would have been known that you can’t fight all the Katyushas from the air alone.

‘Third possibility: To recognize that for many reasons, including budgetary, the army wasn’t ready for possibility two, but that this was the right move. So nothing would have been done right away but a strategic decision would have been taken that such an action would be launched the next time that Hizbullah did something at the border. After all, it did something every few months. And we’d take the three- or four-month interlude to get ready.

‘Those were the three possibilities. What did the government decide? ‘Let’s start attacking and see what happens.’ That’s no way to run things. So, first they felt they didn’t need land forces, then that they needed them but wouldn’t use them, then that they’d use them a little. You can’t run things that way.’

How is it that the stewardship is so amateurish? Why are there no appropriate hierarchies and forums to debate…?

Because there aren’t. I’d have been surprised if the [response to Hizbullah] had been well organized, because there’s no system that would allow it to be organized. Sometimes the leadership, without the appropriate systems, makes the right decisions. After all, these are talented people. There’s a lot of experience. But there is no system that enhances the likelihood of that happening.

Which decision making systems should be constructed?

The political reality is that the prime minister, because of the election system, because of the coalition makeup, because, because, because… spends 80 percent of his time trying to survive politically. That’s true for him; it’s more or less true for the ministers too. In that kind of reality, the connection between the leaders of the country and the issues facing the country is not sufficient. And even when they do get to serious discussion of the vital issues, political considerations are dominant – how things will look, what people will say, and so on. Now that’s not to say this doesn’t happen in other countries, but not to the degree that it happens here. All the time. I can’t give you a solution for that. Changing the electoral system, for instance, would simply cause other problems.

What can be changed is that the prime minister have the elementary help of his own Staff, his own team, working for him. That doesn’t exist. Such a Staff would be a small body of say 10 people, working only on political-security strategy. Whoever heads it would participate in all the debates that the prime minister has, all the visits he makes, would interact with all the prime minister’s emissaries, but most important, he would be responsible for all the discussions held by the prime minister. The Staff would coordinate with the Foreign Ministry, the army… depending on the issue. I first proposed this two years ago.

(In the Lebanon context, Eiland says, such a Staff, among other vital tasks that were not carried out effectively, would have done the preparatory work so that the government would have appreciated the complexities of tackling the Katyushas; prepared the ground for the formulation of a public diplomacy strategy to encourage the US to hold the Lebanese government responsible for what had become the ‘Hizbullah state of Lebanon’ and thus changed the prism through which the conflict was viewed and ultimately resolved; and presented the government with the various pros and cons to enable a decision on which ministry would run the home front, thus averting the chaos that prevailed in the absence of that decision.)

What does happen is that if the government says, ‘We have to do something’ [in a crisis, as with Hizbullah], then the army brings a plan and the government has two possibilities: Do nothing or do what the army tells it to do. That’s no way to run things.

But the main problem relates to who runs these debates. Week in, week out, who’s doing what, before full- fledged crises erupt, in order to work out what needs to be done? When you have no Staff doing that, you will always run into last-minute crises and you’ll suddenly realize that you have to make decisions but you’re not prepared for them.

Setting up such a Staff is the easiest thing on earth. There’s no political problem. This is something the prime minister can do himself in his own office. The army, the Shin Bet, the Mossad, the Defense Ministry would be happy to cooperate with such a body.

So who does set the agenda for the prime minister and the cabinet in the longer term?

There’s no agenda, there’s no agenda, none, none, in this field. The army, [by contrast,] has a weekly assessment. The chief of the General Staff sits down once a week and says, ‘Ok, what have we got?’ Before things reach him, there are preparatory discussions, every week – even when nothing major is happening, because reality often changes incrementally. [In the Prime Minister's Office] there’s nothing like that. There’s debate only when something happens: ‘There’s been an attack. Let’s convene to decide what to do.’ There are no initiated policy discussions because there’s no one to organize them.

But wait a minute. After the chief of General Staff’s weekly meeting, he comes to the cabinet, and he might say, ‘There’s no crisis this week but we need to discuss what we are doing about…’

Oh no… Cabinet meetings are a joke. Honestly. They don’t deal with anything of importance. Cabinet meetings aren’t supposed to deal with anything of importance. They are a ritual so that when you turn on the television on Sunday evening, you’ll see the government and you’ll say, ‘Oh look, there’s a government.’

Well, who decides what will be discussed at cabinet meetings?

Formally the cabinet secretary, but the guiding principle is that whatever comes up for discussion must not be important. You know what they talk about? Here’s an example. The cabinet secretary reads the agenda. ‘Item No. 1, at the request of the education minister: The appointment of seven new members to the Association for the Preservation of Yiddish Culture.’

Then the education minister speaks: ‘My first candidate is Mrs. Miriam Zilivansky. She is 75. For 47 years she was a teacher in the Herzliya Gymnasia in Tel Aviv, she’s a grandmother of this many, the mother of this many.’ Who’s in favor? They vote. ‘The next candidate…’ And so it goes.

Come on, there’s a security briefing.

No, no, no, no. Let it go. The security briefing is at a lower level of information than what appears in The Jerusalem Post.

OK, so the prime minister’s daily agenda, his diary.

Look, let’s be fair. Every prime minister needs to deal with party issues, interviews with the media, meetings with this senator, that visit to the army, this budget discussion, 100 percent. Someone needs to plan that. And that’s largely done by the head of his bureau. That’s not what matters.

What matters is that even when they get to the discussion of the right issue, the prime minister comes in and doesn’t know what he’s going to be presented with. It’s not his own Staff that has prepared it. Most of the security discussions involve the prime minister listening to what the defense establishment has to say. Maybe they’re wrong. Maybe their figures are wrong. Who has checked for him?… [The subject matter] hasn’t been prepared on behalf of the prime minister ahead of time.

[In my time as national security adviser, from 2004-6], I prepared maybe a third or half of the security discussions for the prime minister in the political-security field. I had to fight in order to prepare them. I held all the preparatory discussions. I heard everybody. I set out the things on which there was agreement and on which there was no need to waste time. I set out the principal questions that needed resolving on the basis of what I’d heard. I set out the pros and cons of the possibilities related to those principal questions, and invited debate. And I coordinated in advance with the prime minister.

Isn’t the National Security Council precisely the staff you’re proposing?

It could be but it isn’t. Physically, it doesn’t sit in the Prime Minister’s Office and you can’t prepare the ground for discussions if you’re not part of the processes there. You’d need to know whether the prime minister has been speaking to the president of Egypt and what was said. The [head of the Staff], who should be telling the prime minister whether it’s recommended to speak to the president, now, or tomorrow, or whether to speak to the Americans first, is the same man who has to prepare the discussions. You can’t separate the tasks. And that position doesn’t exist.

So who does decide if Olmert calls Mubarak?

I don’t know. And if there is somebody, he has no system.

I said he has none, but actually the prime minister has two staffs, and each of them is limited. He has personal aides – a political adviser, a military attache, with him in his meetings, advising him to meet with people or not to meet with people. One-man operations. And he has the National Security Council, which can do more basic work but is [physically] detached. Unite those two staffs.

Is there something personal in this? Did you want to be the person who heads that forum?

No, nothing personal. I sat for an hour face-to-face with prime minister Sharon and he asked me to write all this down. I wrote it down.

Is there any prospect of it happening now?

I doubt it. Nobody cares. Maybe because of the investigating committees now [into the war]… I don’t know. We had a visit from the State Comptroller. Seventy percent of the focus was precisely on these kinds of things. They went through all the documents. Their report was already supposed to have been published. I don’t know what’s going on with it. But the State Comptroller’s report doesn’t change things in the state. Listen, I did what I could do. I reached the end of the road and left.

I imagine that we survived here as a country for almost 60 years because the other side was worse than us…

Two reasons. That’s one of them. The other is that there are so many good things in this country, so many wonderful things in science and academia, industry, in government to a certain extent, in the army, in the security establishment…

And somehow in times of crisis we found the answers…?

Absolutely.

Does that still apply?

It’s getting harder and harder.

And the other side aren’t so bad anymore?

That’s also true.

Eiland on the Palestinians:

Hovering in the background, always, is the idea of an international conference. The Saudi initiative of four years ago has its basis in an international conference that would determine a permanent solution. If that idea suddenly finds favor in the US without us noticing it, we could find ourselves in a conference that establishes certain positions, which are translated into UN resolutions. And then life can get more difficult from our point of view.

I don’t know how much attention the government is paying attention to such matters. My concern is that after the war in Lebanon and with all the internal problems, no one is listening, no one has patience.

Eiland on Iran:

In the end, Iran will attain a nuclear capability. The international opportunities of a few years ago were not exploited, and today it’s too late. I don’t see the [international diplomatic] processes unfolding now as being strong enough to stop them, or even to temporarily suspend them.

Eiland on the aftermath of the war against Hizbullah:

The debate is currently raging in Lebanon as to whether Hizbullah is the defender or the destroyer of the country. If Hizbullah can regain or even enlarge its legitimacy as the force that truly defends Lebanon, then it will have no problem in rearming. And if, in two or three years, it is back where it was two or three months ago, then the war will have been a failure. But the opposite could play out too. Hizbullah could end up with less legitimacy and even if it got weaponry, it would not have the same freedom to act and there would be other forces that restrain it. In that case there will be fewer negatives than positives [from Israel's point of view].

A second unresolved debate relates to how badly Israel’s deterrent capability has been harmed. It has certainly been harmed in several ways:

The Palestinians already recognized the Kassam as an effective weapon. Israel’s failure to stop the Katyushas only reinforces that sense. So there’s no doubt there’ll be a great effort to bring in [rockets to the West Bank].

There are other aspects too. Take Syria. For 33 years, the Syrians made sure that their border with Israel would be quiet. Why? Because of the fear of what Israel would do if it wasn’t. Now the Syrians are wondering, ‘Maybe we can take some risks. What will the Israelis do? Maybe we can do what Hizbullah did, but better.’

Then there are the wider circles of repercussion. The fact that there’s been an erosion in Israeli deterrence as perceived by many players could have repercussions relating to Iran, to Egypt…

It’s too early to know exactly how this will play out, but it’s clear that it’s bad. The only question is how bad?

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