Security and Defense: Who's in charge of whom and over what?

Among many other issues Netanyahu will have to contend with is overlap in security and defense duties.

Netanyahu and Barak shake hands 248.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozlimski [file])
Netanyahu and Barak shake hands 248.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozlimski [file])
When Avigdor Lieberman joined the Ehud Olmert government as minister of strategic affairs in October 2006, defense minister Amir Peretz refused to allow IDF officers - from low-ranking captains to high-ranking generals - to meet with his new right-wing coalition partner. "Lieberman will not have a foothold in the Defense Ministry," Peretz told a crowd of several hundred Labor Party members at a rally, days before Lieberman's Israel Beiteinu joined the coalition. "I will not allow him to endanger our soldiers. I won't let the Iranian threat become a political issue." When Peretz was replaced by Ehud Barak as defense minister in June, 2007, the IDF boycott of Lieberman continued. Related blog: Forecast Highs: Israeli intelligence and the new cabinet At the time, the boycott was understood as stemming from political and personal differences - as well as connected to a turf war: the question of who was really in charge of dealing with the Iranian nuclear threat. Peretz and Barak believed that they should be the address. Lieberman was getting in the way. THIS KIND of perceived overlap between different ministerial posts is not entirely new. Another recent example came up during the Second Lebanon War, when it was unclear who exactly was in charge of rocket attack sites and of providing welfare services to the public in the North that found itself holed up in bomb shelters without food, medical care and other basics. According to one school of thought, it was the IDF's (Defense Ministry) responsibility; others believed it fell under the jurisdiction of the police (Public Security Ministry) or the local authorities (Interior Ministry). When Lieberman served as minister of strategic affairs, he spent most of his time working on the Iranian nuclear threat, devising "day-after" strategies for both a preemptive strike against the Islamic Republic's nuclear facilities, and for the possibility that Teheran would succeed in obtaining a nuclear capability. Shut out of the IDF, Lieberman's chief contact was with the Atomic Energy Commission and the Mossad, two agencies that fall under the jurisdiction of the prime minister, not the defense minister. The ministry had a staff of around 15 people, if one includes the minister and his immediate advisers in the head-count. "The office did some basic work on several issues, such as the Iranian nuclear threat and Israel's relations with Russia," explained one official who was familiar with the ministry under Lieberman. "The truth is that there wasn't really that much to do." Though the Strategic Affairs Ministry was disbanded after Lieberman left the last government in January 2008, it has been reestablished on behalf of Likud MK and former chief of General Staff Moshe "Bogie" Ya'alon. THERE ARE several clear differences between Ya'alon and Lieberman. Firstly, Ya'alon and Barak have a long history together. Both are former commanders of the elite General Staff Reconnaissance Unit (Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu was a platoon commander), and it was Barak who promoted Ya'alon to major-general and OC Military Intelligence in 1995. Five years later, as prime minister, Barak again promoted Ya'alon - this time to deputy chief of General Staff, which put him in line to become the next chief, which he did in 2002. As a former chief of General Staff with tight connections to the IDF, Ya'alon does not really need Barak to talk to IDF officers. On the other hand, if he wants to meet with them by the book, he will need Barak's approval. The tension between Barak and Ya'alon is likely to flare up over the National Security Council, which has fallen under Ya'alon's jurisdiction. The NSC has for years been a thorn in the side of the Defense Ministry, which has persistently worked to weaken it, so as to retain the IDF's monopoly over anything that has to do with defense and security. Netanyahu has appointed former top Mossad official Uzi Arad to head the NSC, and has said that he plans to fill it with content and executive authority, to enable it to serve the government effectively in an advisory and staff capacity. Ya'alon, according to close associates, is actually satisfied with his new position. Had he been appointed defense minister, as was widely speculated before the Labor Party joined the coalition, he - a freshman MK - would have been thrown into the deep end of the pool of politics, without any swimming experience. In his job as minister of strategic affairs, he can work on interesting issues, while simultaneously gaining political experience, without tarnishing his image in the public's eye. ADD DAN Meridor to the mix, and things really begin to get confusing. Meridor was appointed this week minister-without-portfolio in charge of intelligence agencies. The post places him in an overseeing capacity over the Mossad, Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) and Military Intelligence. He is also supposed to oversee work being done by the Atomic Energy Commission, an agency that also falls under Ya'alon's job jurisdiction. But it is not a full-time job. In the outgoing government, Meir Sheetrit held the portfolio along with his regular job as interior minister. While the intelligence agencies are strong and very protective of their turf, Meridor is no stranger to the intelligence world. After leaving politics in 2003, he was appointed by Ariel Sharon to head a committee put together to write defense doctrine - which was completed in 2006. He has also served over the years on a number of additional committees that have dealt with intelligence, particularly as it relates to the Iranian nuclear threat. According to Ephraim Kam, a former high-ranking officer in MI and current deputy head of the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv, this type of overlap will cause definite tension and friction within the defense establishment. It can also cause confusion among the different defense and intelligence organizations. Whom do they report to? Who is their superior? "There are too many responsibilities that overlap in this government," Kam said. "It will be up to the prime minister to make order and ensure that everyone works well together." Netanyahu already has a lot on his plate as prime minister. He can simply add this to the menu.