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Zion's Dilemmas: How Israel Makes National Security Policy by Charles D.Freilich (review)
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Zion's Dilemmas: How Israel Makes National Security Policy, by Charles D. Freilich. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2012. 366 pages. $49.95.

The complexities of characterizing the decision-making process on national security matters in Israel have been described and analyzed in numerous works over the years.1 It seems, though, that Freilich's book is the most comprehensive, systematic, and empirically substantiated analysis of the strengths and particularly the weaknesses of that process, and their reasons, so far.

Alongside points of strength of the Israeli national security decision-making process, such as quick adaptability to changes, pragmatism, improvisation skills, innovation, personal ties between officials that help bypass bureaucratic barriers, etc., Freilich identifies five pathologies of the process: unplanned process, politicized process, semi-organized anarchy, non-institutionalized process, and primacy of the defense establishment. He then investigates their manifestation in seven case studies — Camp David, 1978; the Lavi project; the First Lebanon War, 1982; the pullout from Lebanon, 2000; Camp David, 2000; the disengagement from Gaza, 2005; and the Second Lebanon War, 2006. The five pathologies were to varied degrees manifested in all of the case studies.

Freilich attributes the pathologies to two main reasons: first, Israel's unique, complex, uncertain, and highly dynamic security challenges; and second, Israel's highly politicized decision-making process. He chooses to stress the second reason, pointing to the system of coalition-cabinet government as the major impediment to systematic decision-making. Due to this system, the prime minister and his/her fellow ministers fear debate with coalition partners who disagree with them on policy preferences and priorities; they try to avoid policy recommendations that might be inconsistent with their own preferences or tie their hands; they evade setting clear objectives which they may later be held accountable for failing to achieve; and they prefer holding their cards close to their chests out of fear of leaks from national security forums and other agencies dealing with national security matters.

A theme that repeats itself throughout Freilich's analysis is the dominant role played by the IDF in the decision-making process, thanks to its resources, experience, impartiality, and professionalism. Freilich mentions cases where decision-makers had a military background (e.g., Yitzhak Rabin, Ehud Barak, Ariel Sharon), and therefore [End Page 318] felt it more convenient to work with the military directly and tended to adopt its advice over the suggestions of other agencies (p. 54). It is conversely true, however, that in cases where decision-makers had no security background (e.g., Golda Meir, Levi Eshkol, Menahem Begin, Amir Peretz) they had to lean on the military for advice. It seems, therefore, that neither the military nor the politicians have so far really felt that they needed intervening bodies between them. Although the political echelon could be expected to be more interested in such bodies than the military, this has never happened.

While stressing realistic explanations, such as the state's strategic conditions or the bureaucratic-organizational bargaining process among decision-makers and national security agencies, the book is somewhat less strong in the non-realistic, cultural explanations that it offers. Since the pre-state years, Israeli strategic culture has given priority to military solutions to national security challenges.2 It has cherished rich experience and experience-based intuition, a practice-oriented approach,3 and performance;4 it has tended to extol resourcefulness and improvisation;5 and until 1973 it has been plagued by hubris, as a result of the "aura of prestige" gained in the 1967 War.6

Given the deep-rooted pathologies analyzed in the book, the negative record of past efforts to reform the national security decision-making system — which the author describes in the book — and the aforementioned impact of Israeli strategic culture, one cannot be too optimistic regarding the chances of the author's recommendations for further improvement to be implemented in the foreseeable future.

Avi Kober

Professor Avi Kober, Department of Political Studies, Bar-Ilan University


1. For example, Yehuda Ben-Meir, National Security Decision Making: The Israeli Case (Boulder: Westview, 1986); Aviezer Yaari, Whom Does the Council Advise? A New Model for the National Security Council (Tel Aviv: Jaffee...