Sunday, December 9, 2012

How are Military Actions Authorized?

Last week we posted twice about a government discussion from December 13th 1955. First, we cited David Ben Gurion explaining the need for significant military retaliation against Syrian military targets, after a period of many small-scale Syrian attacks against Israeli fishing on the Sea of Galilee. The next day we posted a letter of reprimand by Moshe Sharett, whom Ben Gurion had recently replaced as Prime Minister but who was still Foreign Minister.

The tension between them is an expression of the original question which brought me to this particular document: How do Israel's leaders decide on military action? What type of actions require authorization from which military or civil officials? The December 1955 discussion shows that there was already an accepted procedure, but also that it was not yet sufficiently well-defined.

The document is the stenogram of a meeting of the Ministers' Committee on Foreign Relations and Security. Nowadays there's a group with a shorter name, the Minister's Committee on Security Matters, which is quite active, and being a member is a sign of belonging to the upper echelon of the Cabinet. The earlier version seems to have been much less important. First, it didn't convene very often. Seond, whatever its task was, it clearly hadn't been consulted prior to the action on the Syrian front. Nor, for that matter, had Ben Gurion intended to convene it after the operation, either. He did so because another member, Haim-Moshe Shapira, insisted it be convened to discuss two matters. First, how is it possible that the cabinet sat until 8:30 PM the evening of the operation without any inkling of its advent, and the ministers simply heard about it the next morning on the news? Second, was there really need, and is there really justification, for such a large-scale operation? (50 Syrian soldiers had been killed along with 6 Israelis, and an additional 30 had ben captured and brought back to Israel.)

Ben Gurion launched into a response even before anyone else had a chance to voice an opinion.
I'm not going to talk abut the operation itself, since you've got all the details from the newspapers...
As to the dimensions: I'm surprised by you, Shapira. [Here he gave the explanation we published the other day about incremental attacks on Israeli fisherman vs. strong responses. He then continued] On Sunday there was a particularly nasty incident, and it just so happened that I was serving also as the Foreign Minister that day. [Sharett was abroad.] The pleasure to deal with such matters I don't wish on my enemies, not for the reasons you mention, and I'll get to them in a moment, but not because of the UN or the British or the Americans. The reason it's distasteful for me to deal with such matters is that I'm not certain all the men I send into action will return. That's the unpleasant part, and I've got a principle that I don't demand of others what I'd not be willing to do myself...
Here Ben Gurion began describing the dynamics of a battle, in which you never know how the enemy will respond and therefore it's impossible to gauge how many casualties there will be.
I wish to say something about the impact. Whatever we do will make a splash abroad. When they kill one person, or blow up a well or knock down the wall of a house, the Times doesn't report on it. But when we send military units against military installations, that's a big story. [BG went into a long and very interesting digression about the use of military force and the media, and the ability to explain Israel's positions, before eventually meandering back to his original point:] I don't object if you wish to convene this committee, and if a decision is made to create a new procedure, so be it. In the meantime, however, there was a serious attack on our fishermen, and the routine is that the Minister of Defense - that's me - talks to the Prime Minister - that's me - and the Foreign Minister, who it so happened was also me, so I made the decision even though it wasn't easy.
To which Shapira responded dryly: "we could have made it easier for you."

In spite of Ben Gurion's historical stature, his contemporaries were not cowed by him. Pinchas Rosenne, the Justice Minister, pointed out that had there been a prior decision he might or might not have been swayed by BG's arguments, but in reality it was a near miss because the Syrians could have responded with greater force and both sides could have decsended into full war without the government ever having deliberated such a move. Development Minister Mordechai Bentov talked about the collective responsibility of all the members of the cabinet, and how that responsibility couldn't be reconciled with BG's way of making decisions. Transportation Minister Moshe Carmel noted that indeed such matters couldn't be discussed in the full cabinet which already has too much to do, but asked if it wasn't the specific task of the present committee? Levi Eshkol, on the other hand, Minister of Finance and future Prime Minister himself, felt the cabinet needed to decide on principles, while only a small group (presumably the three designated ministers) should make the concrete decisions.

Ben Gurion eventually closed the meeting with a decision to discuss the rules in a full cabinet meeting.

One final point which is quite startling from our point of view: The participants in the meeting were all ministers. No generals were invited nor their opinion even mentioned; and no legal advisors. The Ministers may not have been clear about how they were to reach decisions, but it didn't occur to them to defer to the civil servants.

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