Announcing the INSS’s establishment just two weeks before the 1999 elections was a political ploy by Premier Netanyahu, then completing his first term in office. In a country preoccupied with national security affairs, Netanyahu clearly hoped – forlornly as it transpired – that the announcement would improve his electoral prospects by generating the impression of a reform-minded leadership adopting a critical new decision-making innovation.
Strategically, in the decades following the 1973 Yom Kippur War, an intolerable gap emerged between Israel’s increasingly complex external environment, and the existing national security machinery’s ability to cope with the demands it generated. Most of the threats Israel had long faced remained, and new, even more dangerous ones were added. Cracks also began appearing in the previously monolithic wall of Arab hostility, presenting unprecedented opportunities for diplomatic engagement that required an entirely new set of considerations. Israel’s relations with a variety of countries, including the US, Russia, some Arab states and even distant ones like China and North Korea, were also changing rapidly. Although a tiny nation, the spectrum of national security concerns Israel faced were worthy of a major power.
Responding to the threat
Israeli national security thinking had long been predicated on a fundamental perception, shared by decision-makers of all stripes, that Arab hostility was so extreme as to pose an existential threat of genocide, not just the danger of politicide faced by other states. Moreover, Israel’s external environment was characterized by nearly constant and sweeping change. The combined effect of Arab hostility and Middle Eastern volatility was a belief that Israel’s ability to materially shape its external environment was highly circumscribed and decision-making in the early decades consisted primarily of responses to Arab actions.
Israel also responded by developing outsized defense capabilities and a decision-making style focused on ad hoc solutions to immediate threats. In these circumstances, the absence of an entity charged with policy planning at the prime ministerial and cabinet level, an otherwise glaring gap in Israel’s national security structure, becomes somewhat less surprising, if no less significant.
The Early Years
With Netanyahu’s defeat in the 1999 elections, the INSS languished in bureaucratic obscurity under his successors Barak and Sharon, neither of whom believed it offered significant value and considered it an unnecessary bureaucratic competitor to the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). Israel’s trauma over the ill-fought 2006 Lebanon war, in which Hezbollah, a non-state adversary, succeeded in fighting the IDF to a standstill and causing significant damage to the home front, ushered in a period of introspection. A National Commission of Inquiry severely criticized Israel’s wartime decision-making process (DMP) and paved the way for the “INSS Law” in 2008. With the INSS’ existence enshrined in statute, the question became what kind of role it would play, rather than whether it should exist. Recognizing that Israel, unlike the US, already had a National Security Council – the Cabinet – the law changed the name to the more appropriate National Security Staff.
Given Israel’s strategic environment, the INSS was always going to focus on the “hard” (foreign and defense) dimensions of national security policy, rather than “softer” domestic issues, which were dealt with by other agencies, or in some cases orphaned. This focus was clear from the outset in the ambivalent attitude towards the INSS’s Domestic Affairs Division. Initially, the Division dealt with issues such as Jewish-Arab relations, alternative models of military service and societal resilience and considered the challenges to Israeli democracy. The Division was disbanded when it was deemed more appropriate in a democracy for a civilian agency to deal with issues of this nature, rather than a military-dominated national security establishment, but was subsequently reconstituted.
The INSS’s primary focus has thus been on Israel’s external challenges, such as the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, especially Iran’s nuclear program, Iranian regional expansionism, Hezbollah, the Palestinians and Hamas, relations with the US, Russia, the primary Arab countries, Europe and various strategic partners such as India. Much of the emphasis has been on military and diplomatic threats, but also opportunities, such as the INSS’s important role in negotiations leading to the peace agreements with the UAE and Bahrain in 2020.
Following the INSS Law, Prime Minister Olmert instituted an extraordinarily highly structured and rigorous DMP. Meetings of the Ministerial Committee on Defense (MCoD) were scheduled one year in advance, with the INSS chairing a demanding inter-agency process in preparation for these and other meetings. As might have been expected, this trauma-induced and untenably structured process began dissipating rather quickly, but some of the procedures took root.
The INSS started coming into its own following Netanyahu’s re-election in 2009 and uninterrupted tenure ever since. In practice, Netanyahu has been premier for more than half of the INSS’s life, and almost the entire period since the INSS Law was passed. It has thus largely come to be his creation, making it difficult to generalize about the role it might play under future premiers. To date, in any event, the influence of the INSS has grown, gaining a central role in the Israeli DMP.
The INSS Today
he INSS has a professional staff of some 75 people today, not including support personnel. The structure has changed considerably over the years, reflecting new strategic exigencies and the priorities of different Premiers and NSA’s. In addition to the original four divisions (Defense, Foreign Affairs, Domestic Affairs and Counter-Terrorism, as well as a legal and economic advisor), the INSS has added: Middle East, Special Relations and Africa Policy Division; an Intelligence, Integration and Ministerial Committees Division, responsible for preparing Cabinet meetings, MCoD and other senior forums; a Special Issues Division dealing with particularly sensitive issues such as Iran, and; an International Visits and Foreign Relations Division, responsible primarily for organizational aspects of the Premier’s trips abroad.
Policy Formulation. In Israel, as elsewhere, an advisory body that is not engaged in day-to-day affairs risks bureaucratic irrelevance, as was the case in the INSS’s early years. Consequently, it has become deeply engaged in day-to-day servicing of the Premier’s affairs, thereby undermining the unique role intended for it, as the primary body in Israel’s national security establishment charged with in-depth, national level strategic planning. With other agencies consumed by current affairs, the INSS should have provided sorely needed balance and reduced Israel’s proclivity for improvisational and sequential decision-making. In practice, the INSS conducts few fundamental policy reviews. One important exception, after a number of faulty starts, is the institutionalization of the annual national net assessment mandated by the INSS Law.
The INSS provides a systematic process today for substantive preparation of the Premier prior to meetings with foreign dignitaries in Israel and on trips abroad, replacing the more haphazard preparations of the past. Preparation of meetings with other senior Israeli officials, however, including ministers, remains spotty and unstructured. Crucially, the NSA, or one of the other senior officials from the INSS, participates in virtually all of the Premier’s meetings on diplomatic and most defense issues, although those of a clearly military nature remain the bailiwick of the Premier’s Military Secretary, his liaison to the IDF.
Meetings of the cabinet and MCoD are better prepared than in the past, with an orderly process in place, though not the extraordinarily structured one of the late Olmert era. The INSS sets the agenda, holds preparatory inter-agency meetings, prepares background papers and especially the critical “decision proposals” (hatzaot machlitim), which are usually the basis for cabinet discussion and decision. The INSS typically briefs the Premier prior to meetings of the cabinet and MCoD, as well as interested ministers. The INSS also maintains a list of the primary issues requiring cabinet attention, updated on a quarterly basis, prepares “100 day plans” for incoming cabinets, which happened three times during the politically volatile 2019-2020 years, and maintains a regularly updated list of Israel’s objectives and interests on the different military fronts.
In most cabinet meetings today, the INSS presents policy options and often recommendations. The absence of systematic presentation of options was long considered a critical failing of the Israeli DMP and this change is an important improvement. The nature of the process for developing options, however, remains deficient. Time pressures and ministerial rivalries mean that agency representatives in the preparatory meetings cannot always present options that have been formally approved by their agencies. This problem appears to greater for those meetings chaired at divisional-head level than those chaired by the NSA.
An even greater problem is posed by the ongoing division of authority between the NSA and the Military Secretary, an IDF General, whose importance rivals that of the NSA. Attempts by at least one previous NSA to subordinate the Military Secretary to the INSS encountered strong opposition from the IDF and succeeding NSAs chose, probably wisely, to abandon the fight. The Military Secretary remains the gatekeeper of all national security information flowing to the Premier. He is the first and last person to brief the Premier on events throughout the day, accompanies him at all times, and is the only official present in every national security meeting the Premier holds. Although the Military Secretary lacks a supporting staff, and in that sense is at an organizational disadvantage compared to the NSA, he has the entire IDF at his disposal and is responsible for preparing meetings dealing with matters of a clearly military nature. Consequently, the NSA has not achieved, and is unlikely to achieve, complete control over the preparation and management of the Premier’s national security affairs. However, the position of Advisor to the Premier for Diplomatic Affairs, previously another leading rival for influence, was merged with that of the head of the INSS Foreign Affairs Division. It is not yet clear whether this is a permanent change.
For most of his tenure as Premier, although not recently, Netanyahu has convened an informal grouping of senior ministers, originally seven, later eight and ultimately nine, which proved to be an effective, discrete and expeditious sub-cabinet forum for considering issues of particular importance and sensitivity. Lacking statutory authority, these groups could not make formal decisions, but their recommendations usually carried decisive weight with the MCoD, or cabinet plenum. Despite the importance of these groups, their meetings were not typically prepared by the INSS.
Policy integration. Policy integration and the inter-agency process remain areas in which further progress is required. To the extent that the INSS’s cabinet presentations and policy papers reflect an integrative process, it remains overwhelmingly intra-INSS. Numerous inter-agency meetings are convened and the INSS takes the agencies’ positions into account. A hierarchical process, however, starting with low-level meetings, followed by more senior ones and finally a “Principals” forum, as in the US, does not exist. Moreover, INSS cabinet presentations and policy papers do not usually reflect an iterative process involving the different agencies. Most policy papers are not circulated for comment and the INSS does not typically serve as an “honest broker” when differences arise, usually leaving it to cabinet ministers to iron out differences. Integration appears to be limited primarily to the process of drawing on agency inputs and then formulating an INSS paper.
Formulation of clearly defined policy objectives, the basis for any truly systematic DMP and a critical failing of the Israeli process in the past, also remains partial. Coalition maintenance remains the Premier’s foremost objective, rather than decision-making clarity. As a result, objectives tend to be ad hoc, issue-specific and tactical in nature, rather than broad strategic ones. To the extent that formulation of fundamental strategic objectives and options does take place, it is mostly in the context of the annual net assessment and a few in-depth policy papers that the INSS does prepare, not in the ongoing flow of policy papers and cabinet presentations.
One important area in which considerable progress has been achieved is in the statutory mandate to deepen the INSS’s role regarding the defense budget and major procurement projects. Opposition from the IDF and Ministry of Defense to the INSS dealing with these matters, along with personnel limitations, long hampered its ability to effectively address these areas, but it has developed impressive capabilities in recent years, nevertheless.
Post-decision Functions. A formal process for follow-up on cabinet decisions has been put in place, but has not become fully institutionalized, due to bureaucratic resistance and because of decision-makers’ reluctance to have their achievements assessed by subordinate officials. Further complicating the picture, cabinet and MCoD decisions are often intentionally worded in a manner designed to make an assessment of their success difficult, a practice that is politically expedient, especially in Israel’s coalition system, while the rapid pace of developments in Israel’s external environment often outpaces decisions. In many cases, cabinet decisions are largely declaratory, without any actual intention that they are implemented.
Operational Responsibility. Although the INSS is neither designed nor structured to be an operational agency, in some areas it has gained considerable operational responsibility. It has gained particular importance in the conduct of negotiations with foreign governments and management of a variety of “strategic dialogues” and other senior forums. This role has, of caused tensions with other agencies, especially the Foreign and Defense Ministries, which either chaired these forums in the past, or expected to do so.
The INSS’s National Situation Room is responsible for preparing a one-stop, integrative, national briefing paper for the premier and MCoD, designed to replace the deluge of daily briefings and raw data produced by the various agencies. It is also responsible for the management of a highly secure wartime decision-making facility for the national leadership, reportedly safe even from nuclear attack.
NSA. The NSA himself, has become an important troubleshooter and special envoy for the Premier, meeting with foreign leaders on issues of particular national security importance or sensitivity. On rare occasions, the NSA has also served as an envoy to domestic political figures on particularly charged issues having national security dimensions.
The NSA’s twin role, as the head of the INSS (part of the national security establishment), and as a political appointee and senior advisor to the Premier, has been a long-standing source of tension. In the former capacity, the NSA is expected to make recommendations based on purely professional considerations, serving, in effect, as an impartial national security “magistrate”. In the latter, the NSA is expected to reflect the Premier’s political considerations into account, while at the same time maintaining professional integrity. Most NSA’s have wrestled with this dilemma.
For the previous NSA, Yossi Cohen, formerly a senior official in the Mossad, the INSS was a steppingstone to his appointment as director of Mossad. If the current NSA, Meir Ben-Shabbat, a former senior official in the Shin Bet, is appointed to head that Agency, the role of the NSA, as a steppingstone to the most senior positions in the national security establishment may become permanent. This is quite a change from even a few years earlier, when premiers, including Netanyahu, had to scrabble around to find almost anyone willing to take what appeared to be an uninfluential and career-ending position
The INSS and COVID-19
From the outset, the INSS was deeply involved in coordinating the inter-agency process responsible for formulating Israel’s response to the COVID crisis and even its implementation in the early months. By April 2020 the INSS had developed a comprehensive plan for addressing the crisis in consultation with the relevant ministries, public sector institutions, think tanks, academics and a special INSS COVID task force. Its limitations as an operational body rapidly became apparent, however, and responsibility for implementation was transferred to an inter-agency task force headed by the IDF and Mossad, and subsequently – and prematurely – disbanded.
What had initially appeared to be a highly successful response, rapidly deteriorated into one of the least successful ones in the developed world. Partisan politics, including rivalries between the Premier and other leaders, exacerbated by bureaucratic politics, especially between the Health and Finance Ministries, largely account for the change. In a desperate attempt to contain the spread of the virus, a special “Coronavirus Czar” was appointed, although the INSS remained an important source of advice to the Premier and continued to provide the support mechanism for the “Corona Cabinet”.
The INSS has faced broad criticism from within the national security establishment and beyond, for its ostensible failure to fulfill the roles assigned to it and its lack of influence. While some of the criticism has certainly been warranted, it also reflected a degree of bureaucratic rivalry and, no less importantly, a lack of understanding of what an NSC type body is actually designed to do. When viewed from this perspective, and once it had been assigned a role of importance by the Premier, the INSS rapidly became a major player. More recently, Prime Minister Netanyahu has taken to stressing publicly that various issues of importance had been considered by the INSS and that policies adopted reflected its recommendations. In so doing, the INSS became the public face of policy and provided an important degree of policy legitimization.
As one who was “present at the creation”, serving on the INSS for its first five formative years, I opined at the time that if it took the American NSC fifteen years to become the highly influential body we know today it would likely take closer to thirty years in Israel’s case. An advisory mechanism designed for a hierarchical presidential system is not a natural graft for a fractious parliamentary coalition system. At the twenty-year point, this forecast does not appear to have been wide of the mark.
 Except where explicitly stated, this chapter draws on interviews conducted with senior officials of the INSS, current or recent, and the author’s own experience having served on the INSS in its early years. It also draws on the following works by the author: Freilich, C. D., Zion’s Dilemmas: How Israel Makes National Security Policy, Cornell, 2012 and National Security Decision-Making in Israel: Improving the Process, Middle East Journal, v67 #2 Spring 2013, pp. 257-267.
 At least as of the end of 2020, the time of this writing.
 Tsafrir Rinat and Alif Benn, Haaretz, November 15, 2002; The IDF and the Lessons of the Second Lebanon War, Mideast Security and Policy Studies # 85, Begin Sadat Center, Ramat Gan, December 2010.
 https://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/.premium-israel-fails-to-break-chain-of-coronavirus-infections-and-the-numbers-are-rising-1.8911017; https://www.timesofisrael.com/2-month-phased-lockdown-rollback-pushed-by-national-security-council-report/#gs.gyfdwc; https://www.timesofisrael.com/official-lockdown-may-ease-after-passover-but-life-to-be-entirely-different/#gs.gb8grb; https://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/.premium-hi-tech-and-preschools-then-malls-and-sports-israel-s-coronavirus-exit-strategy-1.8762359; https://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/.premium-israel-s-covid-experts-lockdown-saved-country-steps-are-needed-to-avert-another-1.8879376.
 https://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/.premium-israel-fails-to-break-chain-of-coronavirus-infections-and-the-numbers-are-rising-1.8911017; https://www.timesofisrael.com/2-month-phased-lockdown-rollback-pushed-by-national-security-council-report/#gs.gyfdwc. https://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/.premium-israel-coronavirus-mortality-rate-surpasses-u-s-for-first-time-since-pandemic-began-1.9193510.
 The title of Dean Atchison’s autobiography, including his account of the American NSA’s early years.