Fifty Years After the Yom Kippur War. It’s Time the Security Cabinet Replaced the Prime Minister’s “Kitchen Cabinet”

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One of the important lessons learned from the Yom Kippur War was that the authority of government ministers to decide on security-related matters must be strengthened; However, even after five decades, the proper balance between the authority of the prime minister and the members of the security cabinet has not yet been properly regulated, as has been proven over the years. The powers of the security cabinet members must be clarified in legislation, and until then, all the parties involved must exercise their responsibilities and demand that security decisions be brought before the security cabinet.

Photo by Michael Giladi/Flash90

A short time after the fighting ceased at the end of the Yom Kippur War, the government established a national commission of inquiry to investigate the circumstances surrounding the outbreak of the war. Among the issues that the Commission, headed by Justice Agranat, was asked to examine were the assessments and decisions made by the political echelon regarding information about the enemy’s actions and its intentions to launch war against the State of Israel. The Commission found that during the period leading up to the war, there was "a disruption in the fulfilment of the role the government must fulfill in the decision-making process related to matters of national security." The Ministerial Security Committee had effectively ceased to exist, and complete information was not brought before the government, but rather presented to a much smaller, informal forum known as the prime minister's "kitchen cabinet."

The Agranat Commission noted the problem inherent in keeping the government ministers out of the loop and stated that in order to make the correct decisions on highly important defense issues, government ministers should receive full information on a regular basis. The Commission stated that while the prime minister is entitled to consult with relevant officials at all times, the government’s authority to discuss and decide defense matters must not be impaired. The Commission concluded that the absence of a clear definition regarding the distribution of powers, obligations, and responsibilities among the three main actors involved in the decision-making processes related to security matters—the government (led by the prime minister), the minister of defense, and the IDF chief of staff—hampered the effectiveness of defense activities, blurred the focus of responsibility, and caused confusion among the public.

The provisions of the Basic Law: The Military, which were enacted following the conclusions of the Agranat Commission, clarified that “the military is subject to the authority of the government” as a whole. This made clear that the military is not solely under the authority of the prime minister or minister of defense. And as the security cabinet, a committee of ministers created to decide on national security matters, constitutes the long arm of the government on defense issues, it means that in practice, the military is subject to the authority of the security cabinet. At the same time, the basic law did not fully address many of the additional problems highlighted by the Agranat Commission. Over the following decades, various failings were found in the functioning of the political echelon in making important defense-related decisions, and attempts were made to clarify and better define the role of the security cabinet ministers, including vis-à-vis the role of the prime minister who heads the security cabinet.

Thus, for example, the government commission of inquiry into the events of the 2006 Second Lebanon War, headed by Justice Winograd, emphasized the prime minister’s obligation to make use of the tools designed to help him with decision-making on defense issues, including the security cabinet. According to the Winograd Commission, the prime minister is responsible for ensuring that the necessary information is provided in a full and orderly manner to the security cabinet ministers, to facilitate optimal decision-making. On their part, the cabinet ministers are required to ensure that the prime minister fulfills his responsibility to hold meaningful discussions in the security cabinet on important security-related matters, and they must demand this from the prime minister if such discussions are not held. The state comptroller also reached similar conclusions in a report published in 2017, following the 2014 Operation Protective Edge in the Gaza Strip, and recommended that the security cabinet’s powers and roles be set down in legislation, including the types of information that must be submitted to the cabinet, the issues requiring a decision from the cabinet, and the cases in which it must be convened or updated (contrary to the recommendations made by the Amidror Commission, which was appointed by Prime Minister Netanyahu in 2016 for the purpose of examining the work of the security cabinet).

Despite the fact that the lessons of previous wars have clearly indicated the problematic nature of failing to set clear operating procedures for the security cabinet in defense-related matters, existing legislation still does not adequately regulate the powers of cabinet ministers. Israeli governments have usually defined the cabinet’s powers in government resolutions, which can be altered to suit the political needs of each government, and in the Government Regulations, which are situated fairly low in the hierarchy of norms.

Indeed, in the absence of clear and comprehensive legislation of the cabinet’s powers, the prime minister can make decisions on defense matters as he or she sees fit. The prime minister can decide to convene the cabinet or not to convene it, sometimes leaving it inactive for extended periods even when there are critical issues to be addressed. A prominent example of this was the launching of Operation Shield and Arrow in May this year, without the security cabinet being convened. The prime minister has also refrained for some time now from convening the security cabinet to discuss the IDF’s readiness and preparedness for war, in the context of the current protests by IDF reservists—this, despite requests by the senior defense officials to fulfill their duty and present to the cabinet ministers the current state of affairs in the military. Keeping cabinet ministers in the dark on this subject prevents them from having access to information that is essential for decision-making in a particularly volatile period from a security perspective, and denies them of proper understanding of the defense implications of the government’s efforts to reform the judicial system in Israel.

With the passage of fifty years since the Yom Kippur War, the powers and responsibilities of members of the security cabinet should be clearly defined in legislation as soon as possible, in a way that creates the necessary balance between cabinet ministers and the prime minister, and between the political echelon and Israel’s various security bodies. It is appropriate to regulate the frequency and circumstances under which the cabinet convenes, the responsibility of the cabinet ministers to dedicate the necessary time to prepare for cabinet deliberations, and the right of cabinet ministers to convene a cabinet meeting to discuss a particular security issue. Until such legislation is passed, all relevant actors—the prime minister, cabinet members, the Knesset, and heads of the various security agencies—should be expected to fulfill their obligation and call for decisions on defense-related matters to be brought before the cabinet. Fifty years on from that terrible war, the time has come for the security cabinet to replace the prime minister’s “kitchen cabinet.” If this does not happen, then the conclusions of the next commission of inquiry are already written on the wall, in blood.