(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
The National Security Council does not fulfill the functions it was meant to carry out when it was established in 1999 because the prime minister and the government have not asked it to, State Comptroller Micha Lindenstraus wrote in a special report released Wednesday.
"The prime ministers of Israel [have] preferred to have their own intimate forum for making decisions rather than a special body that would be responsible for providing orderly staff work for making decisions," Lindenstraus wrote. "Many public committees, experts and retired senior office-holders have stressed for many years the lack of such a vital process as staff work as important in the decision-making process, especially when it comes to matters of national security."
NSC moves to Jerusalem
The State Comptroller's Office investigation was conducted before the war in Lebanon and covers the period between August 2005 and April 2006. However, the war and the lack of military expertise on the part of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Defense Minister Amir Peretz have made its findings particularly timely.
One of the state comptroller's conclusions was that the NSC, currently located in Ramat Hasharon, should be moved to Jerusalem to increase its influence on the prime minister. On Monday, Olmert announced that the office would indeed be relocated to Jerusalem.
However, the most critical problem, according to Lindenstraus, is the fact that the prime minister and the government do not seem to want the NSC's help, even though the body was established as a result of a cabinet decision that was later included in the Basic Law: Government.
After more than three decades of repeated recommendations to establish an objective advisory body on national security affairs for the government and the prime minister, the NSC was finally established in 1999. It consists of a department of security policy, a department for foreign policy, a department for social and infrastructure policy and a staff for combating terrorism. It has a staff of 30 employees and 14 soldiers in regular military service. Its budget for 2005 was NIS 13.3 million.
The heads of the NSC have complained about the ineffectiveness of the NSC since its inception. In January 2005, Maj.-Gen. (res.) Giora Eiland wrote: "The NSC cannot advance staff work in the area of strategic planning. This subject depends totally upon the manner in which the Prime Minister's Office prefers to handle it. As long as it is not prepared to handle it (and it is not!)â€¦ there is no reason [for us] to do anything."
Eiland was referring to only one aspect of the NSC's work, but, according to Lindenstraus, the government's lack of interest applies across the board. The State Comptroller's Report includes statements from other experts, such as members of Tel Aviv University's Yaffe Center for Strategic Studies, who claim that "the prime minister and the ministers do not display practical and consistent interest in the existence of the Council."
The lack of interest expresses itself in many ways. For one thing, the government did not include the NSC in its preparations and dealings with many projects and crises. These include the IDF withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000, the crisis with the US over the sale of weapons systems to China, several key military projects, such as the Ofek observation and intelligence gathering satellite, and many aspects of the disengagement from Gaza.
The state comptroller found that between November 2003 and August 2005, there were 36 meetings chaired by the prime minister on matters of national security. The head of the NSC was invited to participate in only 47 percent of them. Between December 2005 and January 2006, another 26 such meetings were scheduled. Of these, the head of the NSC was invited to participate in three.
Furthermore, the head of the NSC, who is also officially the prime minister's personal security adviser, is almost never invited to the consultations that the prime minister holds with his close aides before key meetings on national security matters.
The government needs its own national security advisory body so that it will have access to independent data and well thought out options when it confronts the demands or the recommendations of the defense establishment. This problem came during the war in Lebanon, when the political echelon was accused of not being able or willing to stand up to the army.
According to Lindenstraus, the defense establishment has established it own powerful planning and research bodies, including the IDF Planning Department and the Defense Ministry's Defense-Diplomatic Department.
These bodies are even more powerful because the government does not use the NSC and therefore has nothing with which to counter these esteemed bodies, the state comptroller said.
"At the end of the investigation in April 2006, the staff bodies of the defense establishment continued to constitute the dominant factor in preparing the staff work involved in the decision-making process," wrote Lindenstraus. "At the same time, the NSC does not function as a staff body for the government and the prime minister."
Another factor strengthening the defense establishment's influence in making national security decisions is the role of the military adjutant to the prime minister. In practice, he has taken over many of the tasks that belong on paper to the NSC. For example, he is responsible for the prime minister's agenda on matters of national security, briefs the prime minister before meetings on security, intelligence and operational matters, conveys the prime minister's orders to the army, summarizes meetings and is responsible for monitoring the implementation of decisions.
The state comptroller also found that the location of the NSC in Ramat Hasharon damaged its influence on the prime minister.
Furthermore, prime ministers prefer to consult with a forum of advisers who are personally closest to them, even though, according to the government decision to establish the NSC, its head is supposed to run the forum.
One of the consequences of the weakness of the NSC has been that no one stays long at the top. Since it was founded, the NSC has had five heads and two acting heads. The NSC has been headed by David Ivri, Uzi Dayan, Ephraim Halevy, Giora Eiland and its current chief, Ilan Mizrachi. There are also frequent turnovers in the staff.
In his conclusions, Lindenstraus wrote: "The government should act urgently and rigorously to significantly improve the process of orderly staff work procedures in order to make decisions on matters of national security, by significantly strengthening the NSC in deed as well as word."
His recommendations include moving the offices to Jerusalem, strengthening the status of the head of the NSC as the prime minister's national security advisor, defining and limiting the tasks of the prime minister's advisers and military adjutant and their relations with the NSC and expanding the integration and standing of the NSC as the main body responsible for staff work in the decision making process regarding national security affairs.
The new report confirmed many of the criticisms of the government decision-making process outlined to The Jerusalem Post in recent days by Eiland and Dayan.
Dayan told the Post on Tuesday that it was "an absolute necessity, given the current inexperience of the Israeli leadership," for the NSC to be given statutory powers and be fully integrated into the decision-making processes. He said the organization should be legally empowered as the sole organization that advises the government on matters of strategic national security.
"The security challenges Israel is facing in the coming years - preventing Iran from obtaining operational nuclear capability, stopping Hizbullah from becoming a second al-Qaida, fighting terrorism effectively, coming to an arrangement with the Palestinians and preparing the home front - demand a strong and effective National Security Council integrated into the power structure, and this needs to be entrenched in law. The move to Jerusalem needs to be accompanied by the power that is in Jerusalem," said Dayan.
Eiland said in a long interview last Friday that a prime ministerial staff, such as an empowered NSC, could have done the preparatory work in the war with Hizbullah so that the government would have appreciated the complexities of tackling the Katyushas. It also could have prepared the ground for the formulation of a public diplomacy strategy to encourage the US to hold the Lebanese government responsible for what had become the "Hizbullah state of Lebanon," and thus changed the prism through which the conflict was viewed and ultimately resolved. And it could have presented the government with the various pros and cons to enable a decision on which ministry would run the home front, thus averting the chaos that prevailed in the absence of that decision.
To date, Eiland said, "What does happen is that if the government says, "We have to do something" [in a crisis, as with Hizbullah], then the army brings a plan and the government has two possibilities - do nothing or do what the army tells it to do. That's no way to run things."
"Week in, week out," Eiland asked, "who's doing what, before full-fledged crises erupt, in order to work out what needs to be done? When you have no staff doing that, you will always run into last-minute crises and you'll suddenly realize that you have to make decisions but you're not prepared for them."