Kitchen Cabinets in Israel: Size Matters

It is a long tradition in Israel for prime ministers to utilize small groups and more informal channels of consultation with advisors to discuss security policy. These “kitchen cabinets”—the term comes from Golda Meir’s get-togethers with a handful of colleagues late at night in her actual kitchen—were meant to be replaced with a more institutionalized, formal process for discussion and incorporation of analysis with the establishment in 1999 of the National Security Council.

As both Michael Koplow and Amir Mizroch effectively point out in their assessment of Micha Lindenstrauss’ report on the Mavi Marmara affair, today Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak have created their own kitchen cabinet of two, with potentially perilous consequences.

But if kitchen cabinets have long been an entrenched mechanism in Israeli decision-making, what is different now? After all, Israel’s previous kitchen cabinets dealt with all the usual questions of war and peace, and managed to function quite well.

It’s not ego—today’s Israeli politicians have loads of it, but early leaders weren’t so humble themselves. It’s not because today’s top leaders have access to more intelligence, nor is it because Israel of yore was more democratic, accountable, or transparent in its decision-making.

The reason is much broader. The Israel of old was suffused with a socialist-collectivist ethos that really did entail a sense of belonging to the Israeli community and a sense of working on its behalf. It is of course true that to some extent this was always a myth—Ashkenazi treatment of early Jewish immigrants from the Arab world certainly doesn’t fit the mold of a national community dedicated to equality and alikeness. But still, there was a greater notion of fighting for a larger cause.

That sense of collectivism, learned from Russian and Polish nationalism and nurtured in the Labor-dominated economic and political institutions of the Yishuv and early Israel, has been replaced by a growing importance of individuals in Israeli politics. It’s not that in the past individuals couldn’t shape events or exert control; it’s that leaders today see themselves as shaping and controlling by dint of their own sense of entitlement, which leaves little room for others to participate.

For example, Israel’s military and political leaders continue to obtain considerable experience in security matters. Both Bibi and Barak served in elite military units. And Israel continues to fight wars and other low-intensity conflicts, giving its officers and decision-makers direct experience with violence, insecurity, and threat.

But most of Israel’s early leaders throughout the political and military hierarchy were directly involved in the establishment of the governing institutions of the Jewish community in Mandatory Palestine, the 1947-1949 war, and in building the state during the uncertain early decades of its existence. The place of the individual in the larger “drama” was substantively different.

The Comptroller report gives the impression of a Bibi and Barak who believe themselves alone at the center of the action, privileged with insight and not needing any outside interference disguised as advice.

David Ben-Gurion, Yigal Allon, Moshe Dayan, Golda Meir, Shimon Peres, and all the others—they all felt strongly about their own abilities and their right to make final decisions. But they also all consulted with others, bouncing ideas off them, hearing their advice, and weighing options together.

Most of today’s top leaders simply don’t feel the need to do this. The report won’t change this, and I don’t see it as having any real effect on the process of decision-making in Israel. What’s needed instead is a sea change in Israeli attitudes, at both the popular and the political level.

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