April 20, 2020 | Insight

Covid-19 Management and Decision-Making in Israel

April 20, 2020 | Insight

Covid-19 Management and Decision-Making in Israel

There is an old joke that if you put three Israelis in a room, you will get more than 10 opinions.  Due to social distancing, this is currently impossible. But the Israelis still have more than ten opinions about which agency should manage the government response to COVID-19, and what this response should look like.

The core of the debate is not about which agency manages the implementation of the policy, but who sets it and makes decisions. Lost in the debate is the fact that there is a hierarchy of executive authority in Israel. Changing that hierarchy is neither easy nor advisable.

According to Israeli basic law, the prime minister and his security cabinet, along with other ministers under certain circumstances, and sometimes even the full government, are the primary decision makers in both routine situations and emergencies. Assisting the prime minister is his national security advisor and the National Security Council (NSC) staff. Thus, decisions are made by a small group. The Israeli legislature, the Knesset, is empowered to supervise the activities of the executive authority. In theory, this balance of power should be easy enough to implement. However, when some Knesset committees are controlled by the political opposition, the debates can become less substantive and more political.

The NSC is not an operative body, and it should not be. Its mandate is to gather information and analysis from experts and specialists across the Israeli bureaucracy, and to present it, after further analysis, without fear or favor, to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The national security advisor, Meir Ben Shabbat, is entitled to recommend one course of action or another, but the ultimate decision lies with the prime minister and, to a lesser extent, some of his ministers and even the full government. Once a decision is made, the prime minister, through the NSC, taps the most appropriate professional agencies to implement the policy, according to expertise, relative advantage, and mandate.

The debate in Israel right now is about whether the responsibilities of managing the COVID-19 crisis should be transferred to the Israeli Defense Force (IDF), the Mossad, the Shin Bet, or another ministry. Those arguing for this are not really seeking to transfer the administrative role from the NSC, but rather to take responsibility out of the hands of the prime minister.

This would be a mistake. The system today is working as it should. Decisions are being made at the executive level by the prime minister and his inner circle, utilizing data, analysis, and alternatives from the NSC. Effective implementation is subsequently taking place across the bureaucracy. The IDF is enforcing closures and supporting vulnerable populations. The police are ensuring order on the streets. The Health Ministry is monitoring hospitals, patients, medical supplies and machines, and drug stocks. The Finance Ministry and central bank are dealing with the economic fallout and planning for recovery. The Ministry of Defense and Mossad are dealing with external threats to Israel in real time while also working through traditional and non-traditional channels to obtain what is needed to combat the pandemic.

Isolation measures are now easing. Politicians and public officials, each one influenced by his or her own advisors, have many ideas about how to guide the country out of the pandemic, but each according to his or her own agenda. None of them has a comparative or relative advantage over the prime minister and the NSC.

The only body that is proven to be capable of soliciting solutions from across the bureaucracy for possible implementation is the NSC. Or to put it another way, there is no proven way to do this work any better, especially given the many entities involved.

This is not to say that there is a full guarantee that the prime minister and NSC will guide the country perfectly out of the COVID-19 crisis. We are in a world filled with what U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld dubbed, “unknown unknowns.

In the meantime, the NSC and Ben Shabbat continue to solicit the best expertise from experts. The prime minister continues to make decisions based on their advice. And operations are carried out by the most suitable agencies. The debate will continue to question this arrangement, but for now it appears best for the country.

Brigadier General (res.) Jacob Nagel is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) and a visiting professor at the Technion Aerospace Engineering Faculty. He previously served as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s acting National Security Advisor and head of the National Security Council. For more analysis from Jacob and FDD, please subscribe HERE. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.