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Case Analysis 02 September, 2012

Amendments to Israel's New Cabinet Protocol and the Possible Relation to Iran's Nuclear Program

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The Unit for Political Studies

The Unit for Political Studies is the Center’s department dedicated to the study of the region’s most pressing current affairs. An integral and vital part of the ACRPS’ activities, it offers academically rigorous analysis on issues that are relevant and useful to the public, academics and policy-makers of the Arab region and beyond. The Unit for Policy Studies draws on the collaborative efforts of a number of scholars based within and outside the ACRPS. It produces three of the Center’s publication series: Situation Assessment, Policy Analysis, and Case Analysis reports. 


Introduction

The timing of the Israeli government's decision to pass new changes to their protocol and broaden the prime minister's powers raised some speculation in the midst of the ongoing heated debate in Israel over launching an Israeli pre-emptive strike against Iran's nuclear facilities. It was suggested that the changes aim to facilitate the prime minister's ability to pass a resolution to strike Iran's nuclear facilities. However, it soon became apparent that there was no such basis for speculation. The additional powers given to the prime minister have nothing to do with the decision-making process pertaining to national security, such as a declaration of war or major military operations. The debate in Israel over the military strike is independent from the changes made to cabinet procedures and the powers of the prime minister. In this assessment report, these two issues are examined, in an attempt to show why the amendments were made, as well as a look at the reasons behind the ongoing debate about a possible strike against Iran.


Amendments


Two years ago, the Israeli government formed a committee to introduce amendments to cabinet procedures, with the aim of modernizing and improving the government's performance, facilitating the implementation of its resolutions, and increasing the prime minister's powers. The cabinet's procedures were laid down in 1948, though various decrees have been added as time passed. These decrees, which were enacted by successive governments without clear guidelines, were drafted as official texts. Israeli Cabinet Secretary Zvi Hauser steered the work of the committee tasked with making proposals for the amendments, recently submitting them to the government, and on August 12, 2012, the Israeli government approved the recommendations submitted by this committee. The changes to cabinet protocol that were approved by the government included the following:

1.     The prime minister has the right to vote in the ministerial committees formed by the government, in which the prime minister is not a member, as well as the right to change the agenda set by the ministerial committees.

2.     The prime minister has the right to freeze decisions made by ministerial committees and to call on these committees to further discuss their decisions. The prime minister can also halt the decision-making process, and submit said decision to the government for a final judgment.

3.     The prime minister has the right to prevent ministers absent from a cabinet meeting, for any reason, from voting on decisions taken by the government during their absence. Before this amendment, ministers who were absent from a cabinet meeting were allowed to vote by proxy on decisions discussed during the meeting, through other ministers or by sending a written vote. 

4.     In case a cabinet meeting was not possible, the prime minister has the right to take telephone votes over a certain issue, within 12 hours prior to the implementation of the decision. The prime minister can also shorten this time if necessary.

It is clear that these changes that give the prime minister additional powers not connected to national security issues, such as waging war or conducting major military operations. The Israeli government is the only body authorized to decide to go to war, as there is no position of commander-in-chief of the armed forces in Israel. The basic law of the government clearly and explicitly states: "The state does not wage a war unless the government decides to do so." A major military operation that could lead to war, however, does not allow the prime minister - whether alone, supported by the ministers of defense and foreign affairs, or by a nonet[1] forum of ministers alone - to make this decision. Rather, the Ministerial Committee on Security Affairs, which currently has 14 ministers as members, must make this decision.

Any decision regarding an Israeli strike on Iran's nuclear facilities is not as clear; there has recently been talk in Israel that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu cannot raise the issue in the cabinet, as it can only be submitted to the mini-cabinet (the Ministerial Committee on Security Affairs). Israeli intellectuals recently signed a petition demanding that the Israeli government should be the body authorized to make such a decision.

Amid the cacophony in Israel over Iran's nuclear program, and the questions concerning which institution decides to launch a strike against Iran's nuclear facilities, Defense Minister Ehud Barak affirmed in the Knesset plenary on August 16, 2012 that such decision will be made as necessary by the government of Israel, which could and would make the decision on its own.


Netanyahu, Barak, and the military strike against Iran

Netanyahu and Barak continue to support a strike against Iran's military facilities before Iran completes its nuclear facilities, thus entering a "zone of immunity". Barak has, in the last few months, developed the term "zone of immunity" that he uses to describe Iran's attempts to move its vital nuclear facilities to deep underground sites that are well protected from military strikes. Barak has called for Israel to strike Iran's vital nuclear plants before it reaches the "zone of immunity". A serious public disagreement with the US administration over the possibility of a possible strike has arisen, as Netanyahu and Barak are advocating a fast strike against Iran, continuously implying that they should launch it as soon as possible. It seems that the aim behind Netanyahu and Barak going public with their dispute with the US administration on the eve of the US presidential elections is to pressure US President Barak Obama to implement the following:

  • More severe and constricting sanctions on Iran;
  • A public presidential declaration from Obama in which he commits to the use of US military force to prevent Iran from possessing the capability to produce nuclear weapons;[2]
  • Initiate the US' logistical preparations, and begin the transfer of various military forces necessary for a decisive military strike to locations close to Iran.


The US Administration's Position

The US administration has made a concerted effort to clarify its position committed to preventing Iran from gaining the capability of producing nuclear weapons, while at the same time opposing a possible Israeli strike against Iran, particularly before the US presidential elections. In this context, several senior US officials made consecutive visits to Israel and met not only with Netanyahu and Barak to prevent them from launching such a strike, but also with other Israeli officials and several senior Israeli journalists who oppose an Israeli move against Iran before the US elections. It can be deducted from Israeli media - and from leaks obtained from US officials - that the position of the US administration, which converges with many Israeli officials, senior journalists, and leaders of the Israeli military and security institutions, highlighted many important issues pertaining to its opposition to Israel conducting a strike against Iran, particularly before the next US presidential elections, notably the following:

1.     An Israeli military strike will not be able to put an end to the Iranian nuclear project and will result - at best - in delaying it by two or three years at most.

2.     An Israeli military strike could create a real crisis between Israel and the US, stopping the US from using its military force against Iran in the coming spring, if various other efforts fail to convince Iran to stop its nuclear project.

3.     An Israeli military strike may lead to the dismantling of the existing international alliance against Iran, as well as breaking its international isolation.

4.     An Israeli strike could enable Iran to continue developing its nuclear project on a better regional and international basis. Iran may also withdraw from the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons.

5.     A military strike may lead to military confrontation not only with Iran, but also with Hezbollah, who possesses an arsenal of missiles capable of causing serious damage to the Israeli home front.

6.     Israel's continued defiance of the US administration in relation to the Iranian nuclear issue could push the US to raise the issue of the Israeli nuclear program, and this could risk US-Israeli understandings on this issue. 

7.     In contrast to Israel's limited military capabilities to damage the Iranian nuclear program, the US possesses sufficient military capabilities to completely destroy Iran's nuclear project, even if Iran has all of its vital nuclear facilities fortified deep underground. The US possesses new types of missiles and bombs that are capable of penetrating these fortifications, including newly manufactured bombs that weigh 15 tons each, designed especially to penetrate fortified facilities deep underground.

Netanyahu and Barak's attempt to launch an Israeli strike against Iran's nuclear facilities, without coordinating with the US or taking its prior approval, is facing stiff opposition from all leaders of Israeli military and security institutions who prefer to have the US conduct this military strike. Netanyahu and Barak also face a great difficulty, according to the available data and information, in getting a majority of the Israeli cabinet to agree on a strike against Iran's nuclear facilities, particularly in light of internal opposition and division within a nonet forum of ministers in relation to this issue.

While it is true that the Israeli government at the civil level makes these decisions, the Israeli government decides on issues of national security based on an assessment of facts, which is carried out by the military and security institution's bodies - particularly the Research Department in the Directorate of Military Intelligence, as well as according to their interpretations of reality, based on their recommendations submitted to the government. The military institution in Israel has, since its inception, monopolized the assessment and interpretation of security and intelligence reality. This has given it great power to influence the decision-making process in regard to national security, often in a crucial way.

These bodies, particularly the Research Department of the Directorate of Military Intelligence, developed specialized skills in reading facts, analyze them, make recommendations, draft resolutions, and offer multiple alternatives to the government. When an important security issue is being considered, military generals participate in cabinet meetings, mini-cabinet meetings, and the nonet forum of ministers meetings because they possess data, information, analyses, proposals, recommendations, and alternatives that have been methodologically prepared and are the result of the work of the military institution bodies, which make their recommendations, positions, and draft resolutions superior to others.

If Netanyahu raises the issue of a strike against Iran's nuclear facilities in the Israeli cabinet to make a decision on it, the leaders of the military-security bodies would be present and participate in the meeting and present an assessment and interpretation of the facts and recommendations. These leaders are: the chief of staff, the air force commander, the military intelligence chief, perhaps accompanied by the head of the Research Department of the Directorate of Military Intelligence, the commander of the planning department in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), the head of Mossad, the Home Front commander, and the commander in chief of the Israeli navy. All of these generals clearly oppose such a strike at the present time, and adopt, in general, a position similar to that of the US on this matter. Netanyahu and Barak will find great difficulty in getting the cabinet to pass this resolution, when all the generals are present in government with one clear stance (professional in nature and justification) against a strike against Iran at the present time, and before the US presidential elections.

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[1] A nonet forum is the informal forum where many of the most decisions are made by the Israeli government.

[2] They were frustrated with Obama's general declaration in which he made a commitment that the US will not allow Iran to possess nuclear weapons. Netanyahu and Barak want him to publicly commit to the use of US military force against Iran in a pre-emptive strike;