from Pressure Points and Middle East Program

Blaming Bibi

June 14, 2012

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Blog posts represent the views of CFR fellows and staff and not those of CFR, which takes no institutional positions.

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I am in Jerusalem, where the State Comptroller has just issued a lengthy report blaming Prime Minister Netanyahu for his handling of the Mavi Marmara affair.

The BBC summarized the report this way:

Israel’s state watchdog has criticised Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over the navy’s interception of a Gaza-bound flotilla which left nine Turkish activists dead and commandos injured. In a report, the State Comptroller identified "serious shortcomings" in the way decisions were taken by Mr Netanyahu before the May 2010 incident....

"The process of decision-making was done without orderly, agreed-upon, co-ordinated and documented staff work, despite the recognition of the senior political echelon and IDF (Israel Defence Forces) chiefs, intelligence bodies and the National Security Council on the exceptional nature of the Turkish flotilla compared to previous flotillas," the reports said.

I don’t buy it.

Having served in two American administrations, I do not believe that the fundamental "lesson" being taught here--in essence that good process results in good policy, while process failures produce bad policy--is correct. They may, and they may not; I have seen both. In general, good decision-making in my view results from the intelligence, judgment, and courage of top officials. Whether those qualities are reflected in a lovely bureaucratic process seems to me a secondary matter at best; certainly they can be manifested in informal decision-making that is effective and successful.

Comptroller Lindenstrauss occupies a position (fortunately!) unknown in the U.S. government, a sort of all purpose investigator, special prosecutor, and accountant all rolled into one. Of course, he is invited by the very nature of his position to second-guess all decisions, substituting 20-20 hindsight for a better understanding of what decision makers face in real time. I note that in this case, he let the army off the hook. Whatever failures there were at the political level, the more direct responsibility for the operation--for its planning and its implementation--lay with the IDF. The army provided its own report some time ago, and it was considerably less critical of itself  than was the Lindenstrauss report of the Prime Minister. That seems suspicious, as if the army protected itself but the defense bureaucracy then attacked the Prime Minister.

The report does make one point with which I do agree: that Israel needs a strong National Security Council. The Israeli NSC was created some years ago but, often due to the personalities involved--as prime minister, defense minister, IDF chief of staff, or NSC director--it has never played the role the NSC does in Washington. This is unfortunate, because the defense establishment in Israel is very powerful and influential, and a strong NSC that provides the prime minister with independent opinions and judgments would be very valuable.

But the failure of Israel to establish a strong NSC cannot be attributed to Netanyahu, or certainly not to him alone. So the bottom line for me is that this Comptroller’s report seems unfair. Blaming Bibi is not good enough.

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