“The National Security Council does not work because the prime minister does not want it to work,” Yesh Atid party leader Yair Lapid told an INSS conference on Sunday night.
Though Lapid and some other panelists at the conference on the council and the security cabinet took direct aim at Benjamin Netanyahu, former Likud minister Gideon Sa’ar and other panelists were more neutral.
The impetus for the conference was a new book on the NSC and the security cabinet by Netanyahu’s former NSC head, Uzi Arad, and former NSC member Limor Ben Bahar.
What was undisputed among the panelists was that most prime ministers have underused the NSC and the security cabinet, and that empowering them can only help the country in dealing with future challenges of war and peace with its neighbors and with broad issues like relations with the US.
Arad, who spent two decades in the Mossad and ran the NSC from 2009- 2011, was a foreign policy adviser to Netanyahu at different points dating back to 1997. He described one of his roles as challenging the prime minister to think outside of his preconceived notions, and that to get Netanyahu to listen to ideas which were different from his initial take he sometimes had to “switch to English and say I am pulling age on you,” or in extreme cases raise his voice and “yell at him.”
Both Arad and Brig. Gen. (res.) Udi Dekel of INSS said that even 26 years after the NSC was anchored in legislation in 1991 and made more operational in 1999, its status is still unresolved. Dekel said that it is still “fighting for its place and for the attention of the prime minister,” versus other security bodies.
Dekel also noted the recent public debate, brought on by the upcoming State Comptroller report on the 2014 Gaza war, about whether the ministers in the security cabinet should have their own dedicated staff from within the NSC to help them with complex security- related material.
Efraim Halevy, former Mossad director and NSC head from 2002-2003, told several comical stories about prime ministers ignoring the NSC, or using it selectively when it supported their point of view.
Halevy said that we “must understand that the NSC gets influence depending on the will of the prime minister,” and that only with the prime minister’s support can you “get lots of results” from the NSC.
Turning to Lapid, who was sitting next to him and has said he will challenge Netanyahu for the prime ministership in the next election, Halevy said, “I hope this will change. When you get to where you get, you should think differently from your predecessor.”
Lapid himself then critiqued Netanyahu keeping the NSC at arm’s length. He complimented former NSC head Yaakov Amidror and other officials, like special envoy Joseph Ciechanover, as being serious, but said that Netanyahu made big decisions outside of either the security cabinet or the NSC.
Netanyahu, Lapid continued, never allowed the security cabinet to weigh in on strategic issues like “what do we want from our relations with the US, and what to do with the Palestinian issue after Abu Mazen.”
Lapid said the cabinet was mostly used to discuss “whether to blow up a truck on its way through Syria,” which he said was overall a minor day-to-day tactical issue.
One area where the panelists often disagreed was how much the prime minister should supplement the NSC with special envoys and messengers.
Arad was highly critical of using Yitzhak Molcho almost exclusively to manage the peace process outside the range of the NSC.
Halevy, who himself was used as a special envoy by five prime ministers, disagreed with Arad, saying it is “positive, if the envoy has a special relationship with a particular group…With the Palestinians, a big move can only be [made] with a secret messenger.”
INSS Director and former IDF intelligence chief Maj. Gen. (res.) Amos Yadlin also touched on the issues of special envoys, saying they could be valuable, but that the NSC had to be completely in the loop on their activities.
Yadlin added that for the NSC and the government to be more effective in setting long-term strategic goals, the electoral system needed to be moved closer to the US system so that there would be greater stability for the prime minister, and that leaks from the security cabinet must end completely.
Sa’ar, who in addition to running several ministries was security cabinet secretary for both Netanyahu and former prime minister Ariel Sharon, said Israel’s NSC and security cabinet should be more like in the US, where those bodies help set strategic visions and help prioritize security issues.
He complimented IDF Chief-of-Staff Lt.-Gen. Gadi Eisenkot for being the first Israeli leader to lay out a comprehensive national security doctrine last year. But he said that problematically it was “neither adopted nor rejected,” and that in any case civilian leaders should be laying out doctrines.
Former deputy NSC chief Itamara Ya’ar said the NSC had been kept out of so many critical issues, that in one instance former attorney-general Menachem Mazuz wrote a letter to then-prime minister Ehud Olmert admonishing him that he was legally bound to include the NSC in presenting the security cabinet with a full range of options.
Zionist Union MK and former security cabinet member Tzipi Livni said that Sharon had bulldozed his cabinets and the NSC to get whatever he wanted, and that while some processes had improved under Olmert and Netanyahu, that trend had recently gotten worse again.