Olmert IDF 298.
(photo credit: AP [file])
Though it is barely producing a blip on the media's radar screen, an important event is happening this week that could powerfully affect the formation of security policy, which is a central item on the national agenda. The event is the relocation of the National Security Council from its current offices in Ramat Hasharon to the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem.
The quest to establish a strong and effective body to advise the prime minister on foreign and defense policy has a long, checkered history. The original concept goes back to the British Committee of Imperial Defense, founded in 1904 as a forum for politicians and professionals to hash out strategy away from the public eye, and in advance of important decisions.
The United States created an NSC after World War II. The power of the national security adviser and his or her staff varied under different presidents, but the NSC has always provided an important coordinating function. It is hard to imagine the American presidency without such a body.
Here, the creation of an NSC was proposed by the Agranat Commission after the 1973 war. An NSC was not formed, however, until then-defense minister Ariel Sharon appointed Maj.-Gen. Avraham Tamir to head the first such council in 1981. It was disbanded when Sharon resigned about a year later.
When Binyamin Netanyahu came into office, he promised to recreate an NSC, but opposition from the Defense Ministry prevented him from doing so until the end of his tenure, in 1999. Sharon was again involved, this time as foreign minister. But even in the years that an NSC has existed, it has been considered a relatively powerless body, not least because it was physically located far from the Prime Minister's Office.
This week, the NSC's location is finally changing, but two of its former chiefs - Giora Eiland and Uzi Dayan - both argue that the move will not be sufficient to give this body the status and function it requires.
"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," Dayan told the Post earlier this week.
Dayan is right about the dire need for strategic planning and for a stronger NSC. It is not clear, however, that the needed change is legal, rather than structural. It is neither feasible nor desirable, for example, to legislate that the NSC replace the Defense and Foreign Ministries' roles in advising the prime minister and taking responsibility for their respective policy spheres.
What is necessary - as underlined in a long-awaited State Comptroller's report on the NSC that was released yesterday - is for the NSC to be staffed and utilized in a different way.
The NSC should function as the prime minister's own "think tank" and conduit to ensure that decisions and policies made are followed. It should, as its just-resigned director Eiland advocated in detail to the Post last weekend, prepare the prime minister to ask the right questions, obtain the right briefings, and demand coherent planning.
Its staff should include experienced people who come from different parts of the national security bureaucracy, but do not expect to return to the hierarchies they came from. This is important, because for the NSC to be effective, it must be beholden more to the prime minister than to individual ministries. If the NSC is just an extension of the IDF, it is indeed a redundant layer that cannot perform its function.
Without an effective NSC, prime ministers or presidents, especially those with little background in the security field, are almost powerless to conceive and direct their own policies. This is bad for democracy, bad for decision-making, and bad for the country.
A strong NSC would not allow the prime minister to run roughshod against a recalcitrant bureaucracy. It would, however, help prevent separate ministries and security agencies from essentially running the country. It would not guarantee better decisions, either - but not having the proper tools for assessment, as the recent war with Hizbullah made plain, greatly reduces the chances of national success.