Steinitz leads delegation to US

By SHEERA CLAIRE FRENKEL
September 25, 2005 05:57

The Iranian nuclear threat, and Israel-US defense relations will be on the agenda when members of Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee travel

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The Iranian nuclear threat, and Israel-US defense relations will be on the agenda when members of Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee travel to Washington, DC this week to meet with US defense officials. It will be the fifth such meeting for the special joint committee, established nearly three years ago and lead by MK Yuval Steinitz, to facilitate dialogue. "There have been very significant changes that have emerged from this forum," said Steinitz. "I expect this visit will also be successful." The Iranian nuclear threat has been of increasing concern to Israel and the US, he said, adding that the meeting would likely include discussion on joint technological ventures. The joint committee consists of six US senators, two congressman, and four Knesset members. MK's Tommy Lapid (Shinui), Ephraim Sneh (Labor), and Arieh Eldad (National Union) will accompany Steinitz. It was one of several new bodies established by Steinitz since he took over the body. In that time, he says, he has sought to strengthen and refine the committee, historically one of the most prestigious in the Knesset. "What I did in the last three years was make it not just a prestigious committee but also an important and influential one," he said in an interview with The Jerusalem Post. "It is important to have oversight and to exercise checks and balances. When it comes to the IDF and the intelligence community we are the only body in Israel that can scrutinize their actions." In past three years, Steinitz's committee has had 300 percent more meetings than past committees over the same period. "In the past, the generals that would arrive would speak on whatever topic they wanted," he said. "It was a platform for them, not for the committee." In order to change that practice, Steinitz began a new policy in which the committee would invite officials to speak to the committee through a letter which outlined which topics where to be discussed and which questions were likely to be asked. "This is not a free appearance," Steinitz said. "This was the first move of us not letting them dictate what they could speak about here. It's like a hearing in court, they need to come and speak and explain themselves and not talk about what is convenient." Last week, Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz was called to address the committee about the handover of the Philadelphi corridor to Palestinian and Egyptian forces. Several government sources claim that Mofaz at first refused to arrive, citing previous appointments. Ruby Rivlin eventually called the minister, insisting he arrive at the meeting. "Five years ago this would not have happened. Five years ago this committee could not have forced the minister of defense to arrive," said Steinitz. Two months ago, Steinitz increased the committee's ability to call on the IDF chief of staff to testify before the committee. In the past, the chief of staff could send a general, or the minister of defense, to testify in his place. Now, the chief of staff must appear, in person, within 48-hours of being called. Only if the chief of staff is outside of the country, can a general appear in his place. "This was so that the chief of staff of the army understood that he was under the command of the Knesset, and not just his army," said Steinitz. However, some in the IDF have fought against strengthening the committee, claiming that is a security risk and more susceptible to leaks. "When there are checks and balances within the military we know that whatever is said stays within the military establishment," said one military official who asked not to be named. "But when you take information outside of the military it is more likely to get leaked." Steinitz, however, has continued to seek to strengthen the committee's political sway, and is currently working towards a bill that would give the committee control over the IDF budget. "We already oversee the budget of the Mossad and Shin Bet," said Steinitz. "Oversight of the defense budget is poor. If we controlled it we could follow the ways in which the money was spent and keep better track of the appropriations."


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