Monday, August 6, 2012

The Cabinet Protocols: Israel's Second Week

A few days ago we launched a series of blogposts following the deliberations of Israel's cabinet - focusing, as we explained, not on the wordy stenograms but rather on the terse protocols. Today we've got the protocols of the three meetings of Israel's second week of existence, held on May 23, 25 and 26, 1948. They reveal an interesting mixture of war and diplomacy, institution building, and politics.

The content of the reports from the 1948 battlefields didn't make it into the protocols, merely the fact that there were such reports (given by Ben Gurion himself apparently). Greater attention is given, however, to the attempt to end the fighting by a UN resolution. Someday someone needs to write a book about how UN resolutions have added urgency to some military campaigns (and not to others) by adding the option of ordering the sides to desist. (Imagine what the 30 Years War might have looked like had there been a Security Council!) The Israel-Arab war of 1948 was once of the first where the UN had a role.

What the role was, though, isn't clear. The first cease-fire of the war started on June 30th, not in May, and much of what seems to have been happening in the cabinet was posturing: Israel will stop if the other side stops; but Israel won't stop if stopping means the Jordanian will control Jerusalem.

The institution building component of the protocols is straightforward, but interesting for its sequence and the fact that it took place with a backdrop of a war for the very existence of the state. First, the backdrop: it doesn't seem to have made any difference. The ministers went about the process of creating institutions or promulgating the decrees needed to activate them as if there was no war going on. It's impossible to know from these protocols if they worried about the possibility that there'd be no state to need the institutions, but if they did, it doesn't show. True, one of the first decrees created the IDF. But there was also a vote on whether to create a ministry of religious affairs (Yes, by a 5-3 vote), and to send one of the ministers to come back with a proposal for the logo of the state-run train company. The ministers also decided that the judges who had functioned under the British Mandate would now function as Israeli judges, and the protocol includes all their names. Six of the 20-some had Mizrachi names, since you asked, and none were Arab: one assumes the Mandate-appointed Arabs were expected to be judges in the other country.

There was also the issue of physical locations of the ministries. Shoud they all be in the Sarona part of Tel Aviv, or might it be more circumspect to spread them around? Jerusalem was not feasible at this point because it was mostly cut off from the rest of the country.

Finally, the politics: by the end of their second week in office, the ministers had yet to determine who would head which ministry - a standard quandary for all Israeli prime ministers ever since. Though, truth be told, at least in this case they had the reasonable excuse that the ministries themselves hadn't yet been created, at least not as official national institutions. So they set up committees, and sub-committees, and working groups, and they deliberated away. By the end of the week everyone knew that Ben Gurion would be minister of defense in addition to being prime minster, but one of the committees (four members) was given the task of negotiating the terms he was demanding.

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