The Mechanics and Forms of the Decision to Go to War in Israel
Publication Year: 
Language: 
Arabic
English
Number of Pages: 
12

The decision to go to war and how to conduct it in Israel follow two important paths: the official legal path and the non-official, historically familiar path, or else one which is imposed by military and political circumstances. The Prime Minister is empowered to approve military operations without going to war, and he frequently resorts to obtaining approval from a small ministerial cabinet whereas the war decision requires approval by the whole cabinet. This is all from the legal and constitutional point of view but in practical terms the Prime Minister can impose the decision to go to war on the government since he is in charge of the security and intelligence agencies, the MOSSAD and the SHABAK, which are agencies that answer to the office of the Prime Minister. Accordingly, when compared to other cabinet members, the Prime Minister controls the most important resource, i.e. intelligence, which he can keep to himself. According to Article 40 (a) of the basic government law, the government is entrusted with the decision to go to war, and according to Article 40 (a1) the government can delegate that decision to the smaller ministerial cabinet, either permanently during the government’s mandate or for one time only in the event of a particular military escalation. Therefore, a declaration of war is not within the power of the Prime Minister alone nor that of the army or Minister of Defense but within that of the government. In 2018, an amendment was introduced to that basic law which permits the smaller ministerial cabinet to declare a state of war without the need for a decision by the whole government. This amendment was introduced to avoid leaks of information from government members. However, this did not stop leakage of information to the media by the smaller cabinet as happened during the Gaza war of 2014, when information was leaked from within that smaller cabinet regarding potential casualties in the Israeli army if a land operation took place in Gaza. 

Once the government declares war, the Prime Minister ought to address the Knesset where he explains to the legislature the legal reasons for the declaration of war. Israeli law does not define the concept of war since such a definition is dependent upon a political decision by the government which declares a state of war.[1] In this regard, there is no legal definition of war in Israel but there exists a definition of conflict or confrontation such as happens in wartime, like a declaration of emergency laws, the closing of certain civil areas and declaring them to be military zones and other similar measures. Furthermore, a declaration of war grants the government the power to approve military operations and to target vital installations in a total and intensive manner.

Conducting War: Between the Individual and the Collective

Running a war in Israel used to depend upon the power and personal authority of the Prime Minister or the Minister of Defense and there was no procedure which organized this issue in a well-defined manner. Thus, a certain ambiguity and erosion of the limits of authority among the various centers of power imposed diverse principles and procedures in the conduct of war. In 1948, David Ben-Gurion ran that war largely by himself. It was he who set the larger and smaller objectives of that war, often interfered in small military operations, and was in effect the military leader of that war even though he had no extensive military experience and refused to form a war council. Likewise, he was a central figure in the 1956 Tripartite Aggression against Egypt when he also refused to formalize the decision to go to war or to organize military operations, leaving all this in his own hands. Thus, the decision to wage war on Egypt arrived at the government’s door one day before the outbreak of war and following secret agreement with the UK and France regarding that event.[2]

On the eve of the June 1967 war, Levi Eshkol, Israel’s Prime Minister, took a different line from that of Ben Gurion’s central and authoritarian attitude when he included the ministerial committee for national security in consultations regarding the military situation three weeks before the outbreak of war, holding ten meetings with that committee before the onset of war, while the government held five meetings to discuss the military situation with Egypt. However, alongside Eshkol was a powerful Minister of Defense who enjoyed wide popularity and had extensive military experience, namely, Moshe Dayan, who on June 9 took the decision to attack Syria without informing the government or even Eshkol himself. Golda Meir, on the other hand, had a kitchen cabinet for war with Dayan a central figure in that cabinet. All major military decisions were taken during the October war of 1973 by that kitchen cabinet whereas the ministerial committee for national security would hold official meetings but without having any effect on military decisions. The idea of a kitchen war cabinet in this current war on Gaza was doubtless inspired by the war cabinet of the October 1973 war, but with the difference that the current war kitchen cabinet is less powerful than Meir’s kitchen cabinet since it does not exercise absolute authority and influence but needs the approval of the small ministerial council for its decisions.

In the Lebanon war of 1982, Ariel Sharon, defense minister in Menachem Begin’s second ministry, dominated military operations. Some authoritative Israeli sources point to the fact that the army going beyond the 40-kilometer limit was a personal decision by Sharon which Begin knew nothing about. Sharon intervened in all details of military operations even though the then chief of staff, Rafael Eitan, was himself an intractable personality. Yet he agreed with Sharon as regards the war’s objective and the occupation of Beirut.

In 1992, the basic government law was amended whereby the operation of declaring war was systematized, with the law stating that the government is the party authorized to declare war. The second Lebanon war of 2006 was the first military event which took place during the law’s most recent amendment. Thus, Israel carried out a military operation against Hezbollah in July 2006 without declaring war but considered the event to be a series of military operations against that party. Former Foreign Minister Yossi Beilin petitioned the Supreme Court demanding that the government should declare a state of war due to the intensity of military operations and the considerable losses sustained by Israel because of Hezbollah’s operations. The court responded by stating that there was no specific definition of war or any definition of what obligates a declaration of war. This underlines the fact that a declaration of a state of war is a political decision and not a subject based upon specific factors or givens.

The Small Ministerial Council

The idea of forming a small ministerial council was based upon a decision taken by the government in 2001. The cabinet represents the ministerial committee for national security affairs[3] and the current government has ratified the composition of this committee by decree no 6, dated January 3, 2003. This smaller cabinet has the following members:

  • The Prime Minister and Chairman, appointed according to law.

  • The Minister for Security according to law.

  • The Minister of Justice, according to law.

  • The Foreign Minister, according to law.

  • The Minister of National Security.

  • The Minister of Finance.

To this cabinet were added, following a governmental decision, four other ministers not designated by the law: Avi Dichter; Minister of Energy Yisrael Katz; Minister for Strategic Affairs Ron Dermer and Minister of Communications Miri Regev.

The government approved the powers of the cabinet that relate to Israel’s national security as being the authority empowered to go to war or undertake significant military operations leading to the outbreak of war. That governmental decision authorized Prime Minister Netanyahu to confine the decision to go to war or other security affairs to the cabinet in case the state’s security or its external relations required this, or else in case it was necessary to keep decisions secret. The cabinet furthermore has power over, and responsibility for, the security apparatus, their policies, Israel’s foreign relations and acquiring weapons. That decision also empowered the national security council to run the affairs of the national security committee in coordination with the government secretariat.

Accordingly, the small ministerial cabinet is the body responsible for conducting war, approving military operations, deciding to occupy other lands and defining the war’s military and strategic objectives. In that case, the army is the executive arm of the government’s decisions. The basic law of the army (Article 2 a) states that the army is under the authority of the government. To that end, the government’s legal advisor participates in the ministerial council in wartime and examines each decision from the viewpoint of Israeli law and the maintenance of legality in decision making, as stipulated by the laws of the government, army, and legislature.

The Role of the Military and Security Establishment

Historically speaking, the military and security establishment has played a vital role in war decisions. It is the one entrusted from the professional point of view to offer military estimates, based upon intelligence reports, to the political authorities. Thus, the information possessed by the military establishment is an important resource rendering it an influential player in the decision to wage war. Besides offering estimates of battlefield gains and losses, and even providing appraisals of the strategic aftermath of war, the role of the military and security establishment is essential at times when the government lacks the presence of former military and security personnel, but that role decreases whenever there are such personnel. The ability of the military and security establishment to maneuver within the government decreases whenever its members have military expertise, especially in the smaller ministerial cabinet. Governments have normally enlisted these experts within the ministerial council as observers if they are not already government ministers entitled to full legal membership of the council.

This equation or rule has held firm throughout most of Israel’s history. For instance, during the Rabin governments, the role of the latter in military decisions was crucial since he insisted on assuming the defense portfolio in addition to being prime minster. Rabin took several decisions of a strategic nature in opposition to the military establishment. The same was true of the Sharon government. Sharon pulled his full weight in military and security decisions and personally followed the campaign of assassinations during the second Palestinian Intifada. Both these men had extensive military experience and acted as mentors to army officers working under them in the military and security establishment.

This rule was to last until recent years when the right-wing parties, driven by their ideological inclinations, undermined the influence of the military and security establishment over security decisions. An unprecedented and general fraying of the influence of the military and security establishment in governmental decisions has taken place, despite the fact that most right-wing governments in past years lacked to a large extent the presence of former army generals. In this latest Netanyahu government, this latter entrusted the Ministry of Defense to Yoav Galant, the only person who possessed a full military record, in addition to Avi Dichter, former head of SHABAK, appointed by Netanyahu as an observer in the ministerial council. 

Military Decision Making During The War on Gaza

The war cabinet, formed at the beginning of the war on Gaza, is not considered a legal or constitutional council. Legally speaking, it is the smaller ministerial council which is delegated with taking military decisions. The formation of the war cabinet was a condition set for joining the government by the National Unity Party headed by Benny Gantz. Many ministers were excluded from the current council, whose members have risen to ten, including Minister for National Security Itamar Ben Gvir, Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, Foreign Minister Eli Cohen and Justice Minister Yariv Levin.

The idea of forming an emergency government in a time of war dates to 1967 when Menachem Begin, head of Herut (later Likud) joined the Labor government headed by Levi Eshkol on the eve of the June war. That government lasted throughout the war but Begin once more left it to join the opposition. A small war council (war kitchen cabinet) was formed in Israel during the October 1973 war which included four members who took the decisions to do with the course of military operations without referring back to the government which then approved these decisions by the kitchen cabinet retroactively. It seems it was that experience which inspired the official camp with the idea of a narrow “war kitchen cabinet” suggested by Netanyahu.

An emergency government differs from a government of national unity. In this latter, ministerial portfolios are divided among the components of the government which continues to function as a normal government until new elections are held. An emergency government on the other hand functions in wartime without distributing effective portfolios among its newer members while decisions by the war council are not considered legally binding since these decisions must be approved by the small ministerial council to acquire a legal status.

The war cabinet plays a central role in directing military operations in Gaza. Although it is not a legal council, and its decisions need approval by the smaller ministerial council, it is effectively the body that runs the war and the ministerial council approves most recommendations and decisions made by the war cabinet. Then again, the army has a role in taking military decisions which are subject to political, military and personal considerations whereby these latter cannot be separately considered. 

When the war started it had three objectives, two of them declared and the third not. The first declared objective was to eliminate HAMAS, and was after a while joined to another objective, the return of Israeli prisoners and hostages. As the war became drawn out, the first objective took on many interpretations when it was not achieved. There was now talk, at times of destroying the military and governmental structure of HAMAS, at others of assassinating its leaders in Gaza and abroad. There is no doubt that drawing out the war was intended to achieve that objective repeatedly enunciated by most government ministers, led by Netanyahu. As regards the second objective of returning the prisoners and hostages, this represents the great failure of this war since it was assumed that military pressure would force HAMAS to release them or at least attenuate the conditions set by HAMAS during the first ceasefire and the proposal for another. The third and undeclared objective was to drive out the population of the Gaza Strip under military pressure, forcing them to move southwards and then into Sinai, an objective they have largely failed to achieve.

The question of prolonging the war by Israel is tied to the following factors:

  1. The army’s attempt to restore its military image and prestige in the eyes of the Israeli public on the one hand and of the regional environment on the other. This is why the military establishment is a crucial factor in prolonging the war, in addition to the massive damage it has inflicted on Gaza and the thousands of martyrs.

  2. The attempt by Netanyahu to rebuild his domestic political image. Included here too are a number of transformations that need to be considered. These, first, have to do with Netanyahu’s self-image as the savior of the Jewish people. Hence, the failure of October 7 is a flat contradiction of that self-image, one which he has been cultivating for decades. Second, there is the domestic political interest. This failure is likely to end Netanyahu’s political career so he has a clear interest in prolonging the war in the hope of offering some achievement which enables him to repair his political standing. This is because his survival and that of his government have now come to depend on prolonging the war. This is reflected in the persistence of military operations even if they did not include achieving clear political objectives.

  3. The Israeli right wing. This seeks to deal with the war ideologically, considering it to be a historic opportunity not to be missed to drive out the population of Gaza and build settlements in it or at least to rebuild the settlements of Gush Kativ which ended with the plan to disengage from the Gaza Strip in 2005. Accordingly, the Israeli right refuses to end the war or even to have a temporary truce and rejects the entry of humanitarian aid into Gaza in order to achieve its ideological aims in this war.

There are several factors that influence decision making in the current war which might be summarized as follows:

  1. The expansion of the war fronts. Gadi Eisenkot, an observer member of the war cabinet, stated that he had prevented total war against Hezbollah which would have been a strategic mistake. Refraining from opening a total war front in the north was clearly due to deficiencies which became apparent in the state of preparedness of the Israeli army on October 7. It therefore seems that the warlike statements made against Hezbollah by some political leaders were designed to cause fear but were not coupled with military decisions, especially as the war began in Gaza.

  2. The social factor. This has to do with the ability of Israeli society to absorb human losses. Although this war differs from previous wars, especially since 1982, the circumstances surrounding October 7 has rendered Israeli society more ready to suffer losses but this does not mean this this has no effect on military decisions. The care taken to minimize casualties among soldiers renders the war largely popular in Israeli society and this explains one of the reasons for Israeli brutality against civilian targets which is designed to prevent large Israeli losses. To this social factor should be added the question of Israeli prisoners and hostages which has now become a social problem. This is a factor which affects military decision making and thus led to the first truce of November 2023. It has acted as a point of pressure on the government with regard to the progress of military operations.

  3. The economic factor. This has considerable influence on the war, especially since Israel called up some 300,000 reservists, the largest number since the October 1973 war. These reservists are workers, employees, and businessmen, and mobilizing them for long periods in this war affects each one of them personally on the economic level. It further disrupts Israeli businesses and economy. Thus, demobilizing large numbers of them as happened in early December was due to an economic reason, both personal and public, in an attempt to attenuate the emergency conditions in society for a lengthy period of time. According to a preliminary assessment by the Ministry of Finance aimed at assessing the cost of war, the Ministry estimated the war’s costs to be 200 billion shekels, the equivalent of 55 billion USD. These sums do not include the possibility of a war in the north, and they amount to about 10 % of Israeli GDP.[4] For the sake of comparison, the final costs of the second Lebanon war of 2006, which lasted 34 days, amounted to 9.5 billion shekels, while the 2014 war on Gaza, lasting 50 days, cost some 7 billion shekels.[5] However, the cost of the current war amounts to some 10 billion shekels every week.

  4. The international factor. This has an important effect on military decisions. Consequently, Israel employs a whole army of official and unofficial propagandists to propagate its own narrative regarding the war. Israel considers that the international factor which bestows legitimacy on its military operations is an important factor in prolonging the war and has an effect on military decisions. It was the international factor which caused humanitarian aid to enter the Gaza Strip and this despite Israel’s decision to block entry of all medicines, food and water when war began. It also impacted Netanyahu’s recent statement that he did not intend to evict the population of Gaza as also his attempt to dissociate himself from remarks made by colleagues with regard to the decision of the International Court of Justice, even though the expulsion of the population was an undeclared war aim, as mentioned above.

Conclusion

Although the declaration of war and the political decisions taken in the military sphere passed through a process of legitimation on the legal and constitutional level as per the government’s Basic Law, in reality these are all matters that are subject to diverse factors that influence them, such as the social, the economic, the international and the personal. Declaring and conducting a war is not a static or immobile operation. Rather, political and human factors play a decisive role, especially when the Prime Minister is able to take any measure he wants through diverse official channels, rendering official legality a mere formality. This has to do with the personal authority of the Prime Minister, his popularity, the stability of his government, his own military record and the kinds of politicians who surround him. Furthermore, the military and security establishment plays a principal role in the decision to declare war and to authorize military operations and their types from among several available options. It is that establishment which furnishes the government with military estimates as regards information, capabilities and states of preparedness, all of which influence the government’s decisions. This latter in most cases adopts its decisions in conformity with the recommendations of the military establishment.

 

[1] عميحاي كوهن وآخرون، "حرب السيوف الحديدية، كل ما يجب معرفته عن اعلان حرب في إسرائيل. معهد دراسات الأمن القومي"، 9/10/2023 (بالعبرية)، انظر الرابط.

[2] عميحاي كوهن وليرون ليبمان، "تنظيم القرار على تنفيذ عمليات عسكرية، القدس: المعهد الإسرائيلي للديمقراطية"، 2019، ص 11-12 (بالعبرية).

[3] مكتب رئيس الحكومة، اللجنة الوزارية لشؤون الأمن القومي (بالعبرية)، انظر الرابط.

[4] أدريان بيلوت، "تقييم أولي لوزارة المالية، تكاليف الحرب قد تصل إلى 200 مليار شيقل"، "كالكاليست"، 5/11/2023 (بالعبرية)، انظر الرابط.

[5] كارنيت بلوغ ويعقوب فرنكل، "حرب على البيت، هنالك حاجة لتعزيز الأرضية الاقتصادية للمناعة الوطنية"، المعهد الإسرائيلي للديمقراطية، 31/10/2023 (بالعبرية)، انظر الرابط.

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Author Bio: 

Muhannad Mustafa is Chairman of the History Department of the Arab Academic Institute at Beit Berl.