MK Ofer Shelah is worried about history repeating itself – again – but his warning is being drowned out by political controversy.
Shelah leads the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Subcommittee on Building Defense Strategy and Power, which drafted a report following up on how the IDF is implementing its five-year “Gideon” plan, two years in. The subcommittee held more than 30 meetings and site visits in 2015 and 2016 to examine the plan’s implementation at all levels of the IDF.
It sounds straightforward enough, but while the classified version of the report focuses more on the IDF, the parts that could be made public highlight a shortcoming on the political, not the military, level.
The problem, Shelah explained on Thursday, is that the government hasn’t set any strategic goals for the security forces, and in a democracy, the military is supposed to follow the government’s instructions, not its own.
Shelah praised the Gideon plan, saying “it’s excellent compared to the past situation,” in which the IDF didn’t plan for the long term, taking into consideration budget cuts and restructuring.
“However, without a strategic chapter, in real time, it could all be for nothing,” he warned. “The plans have to apply to the real situation we’re in, and not some understanding the army reached by practically acting on its own.
“When you make decisions on how to build power without a comprehensive look at where we want to go, then those decisions are in danger of becoming irrelevant,” he said.
Shelah pointed out that the State Comptroller’s Report
on Operation Protective Edge carried the same criticism, that the political level is not instructing the army what to focus on in the long term or ensuring the IDF is prepared.
Nothing has changed since the 2014 Gaza operation, Shelah argued, which left the IDF to build its plan on its own, without knowing what its strategic aims should be.
The Shelah-led report gives guidelines as to how the government can work on a multi-year plan, complete with target dates by which it should set national security goals and present them to the army.
Debate shifted from security issues to politics after two MKs on the subcommittee, the Likud’s Yoav Kisch and Moti Yogev of Bayit Yehudi, refused to sign the public version of the report, arguing its criticism of the government was too harsh and that too much of it wasn’t classified.
“I don’t know how to explain it. These are people who signed off on every word of the classified report,” Shelah said. “The open report is derived from the classified one, just with some parts erased. But every word in the open one is in the closed one, which Yogev and Kisch signed. We said in advance, in every meeting, that we will publicize the parts of the report that we can.”
On Monday, the Prime Minister’s Office accused Shelah of “using the report and the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee as a political battering ram.” It supported the argument by referring to the MKs who refused to sign, adding that “the citizens of Israel know that Prime Minister Netanyahu is leading an informed security policy that protects Israel’s security in the stormy Middle East.”
Shelah posited that the PMO pressured the MKs not to sign so that it could say the report must be political if the lawmakers would not sign it.
“They apparently faced political pressure, because I don’t know how to explain how else people who signed off on every word wouldn’t sign the open report,” he said.
The report, Shelah argued, is completely professional.
Shelah’s explanation is that the government does not want to take responsibility for the content of the report, because it wants to keep its goals vague, in order not to have to admit failure.
“In response to the Comptroller’s Report on Protective Edge, the prime minister acted as though he had set goals in advance, which is a totally twisted way of describing what happened... There was nothing close to a logic by which the army fought. No one talked [in advance] about 51 days of fighting. If there’s no defined goal, [Netanyahu] never has to say he didn’t do the right thing,” Shelah said.
Although he is skeptical about Netanyahu accepting what is in the report, Shelah said it was important to press on.
“It’s our job as the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee to put things on the table, even when the executive branch, whether it’s the army, other security organizations or the political level, don’t want us to. And we have to present as much as is responsible to the public because they elected us to oversee the executive,” he said.
Shelah pushed back against the notion that keeping the entire report classified would have made it more effective.
“There are secrets in security, but security itself is not a secret. The public in Israel has invested a lot of money and many good years of themselves and their children, and more, so it is our right and responsibility to show them the aspects of national security that we can,” he said.