Shmuel L. Gordon

The limits of Cabinet decision-making on Iran

Israeli law determines that the Cabinet is authorized to make strategic decisions. The law is based on the premise that the Cabinet possesses the insight and experience required for strategic decisions; for instance, the decision as to whether to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities and stockpile of missiles.

But is that a valid assumption? Is there an empirical basis for the premise? At least two reservations come to mind.

First, the premise that the Israeli Cabinet is qualified to make strategic decisions is not shored up by the military history of the State of Israel. Too many decisions made by the highest political and military echelons before and throughout wars were wrong, and endangered the future of this tiny nation. A recent example: Before the second Lebanon war, the Cabinet decided to initiate a limited operation that turned into a failed campaign.

Second, the question of whether the IDF possesses the operational capabilities needed to carry out the instructions of the Cabinet.

There is never a simple yes or no answer to such reservations. Two examples from the past: Before the Six Day War, the IDF was asked whether it can eliminate the Egyptian Air Force before ground troops would cross the Egyptian border. The answer was positive — provided that it was a surprise attack. Then-prime minister Levi Eshkol, who opposed a preemptive war for three weeks, was forced to accept the recommendation of the General Staff. Ultimately, military success proved the prudence of the military advice.

However, throughput the War of Attrition, the commander of the Air Force opposed the deep aerial attacks due to various reasons, both operational and professional. The Cabinet didn’t accept his arguments, and decided to initiate a range of operations in the vicinity of Cairo.

These two cases demonstrate that decisions of the political decision-making echelon should be coordinated with the military decision-making echelon. Otherwise the consequences can be severe and even threaten the existence of the State of Israel.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu raised a few days ago the issue of the authority of the political echelon to make strategic decisions. The question is whether formal law actually provides the Cabinet with the full authority to make strategic decisions regarding the fate of the nation. Here, too, the answer isn’t yes or no.

Let’s take a moment to learn a brief lesson from the massacre in Syria: Are the decisions of the Syrian political echelon legitimate? Is President Assad authorized to make murderous decisions against his own people? In case of such a situation, does the law override common sense? The answer is negative: there are limits to government authority to make irresponsible decisions.

Regarding the Iranian nuclear threat: Are there certain limitations to the authority of the political echelon to make strategic decisions that contradict the professional recommendations of its military and intelligence subordinates? Those organizations collect essential data, process information, capabilities, alternative activities, and possible outcomes — including possible failures. Assuming that they come to a common conclusion to delay military operations until some circumstances will be changed, it is quite difficult to ignore their conclusions and advice.

That issue is not open to public discussion, but the prime minister and the Cabinet ought to at least work to convince the highest military echelon that its decisions are logical, well-calculated and take into consideration opposing data and arguments of the intelligence and military organizations. Thus far, the previous IDF chief of staff, the head of the Mossad, the head of the Shin Bet, and the head of military intelligence weren’t persuaded and have remained in opposition to an immediate operation in Iran.

The authority of Israel’s leaders is limited, not only by the law but by the trust and confidence of the citizenry. They should build this trust if they expect that their instructions will be executed.

About the Author
Colonel (res) Shmuel L Gordon has a PhD in International Relations and Strategic Studies from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and has written several books and hundreds of essays on national security, decision-making, strategy, air warfare, and counter-insurgency conflicts. He had a distinguished career in the Israeli Air Force as a fighter pilot and commander. He is the winner of Yitzhak Sade Prize for Defense Literature, the Karmon Prize for Research from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and And the Ben Gurion Prize for Security study from the General Histadrut.