Headless meetings: As Netanyahu, Trump meet, neither has a national security council chief

Unlike some national security issues which can take years to come into focus, a number of these questions will be clarified in the coming days.

Trump and Netanyahu (photo credit: REUTERS)
Trump and Netanyahu
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Will Wednesday’s much-anticipated meeting between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and US President Donald Trump be missing key pieces that could impact intelligence and national security coordination going forward? When Netanyahu enters the Oval Office in the West Wing, he will do so without a National Security Council chief, and Trump will be minus a person in the same key position.
That means whatever arrangements are worked out in this initial meeting will likely need to be reworked at some later date, once Netanyahu and Trump each settle on a key national security aide to be the go-between for them on intelligence and security.
US security aide Flynn quits over Russia links (credit: REUTERS)
All of this comes after Michael Flynn announced his resignation as Trump’s national security adviser late Monday, following months of negative coverage about his closeness with Russia and possibly, even violating certain laws in discussing alleviating US sanctions on Russia, prior to Trump’s taking office.
There are efforts under way to replace Flynn, but they certainly will not be completed before Wednesday’s critical meeting.
Further, Flynn reportedly took the lead for the US in multiple meetings with Mossad Director Yossi Cohen and other Israeli national security officials in a few pre-summit meetings dating back to December.
On the Israeli side, Netanyahu has had no NSC chief for far longer.
His troubles with that position started when he announced in February 2016 he would appoint Avriel Bar-Yosef, a former IDF brigadier general and deputy head of the NSC, to be the new NSC chief.
Before Bar-Yosef got going, he announced in July 2016 he was giving up pursuit of the position. In November 2016, Bar-Yosef was arrested on allegations that he had accepted bribes from a German businessman to use his NSC position to help the businessman land natural gas deals in Israel.
In August 2016, Netanyahu offered the job to Yaakov Nagel, who was to be Bar-Yosef’s top deputy, but Nagel said he would only serve as acting NSC head for one year.
Nagel has been involved in meetings to help plan the Netanyahu- Trump summit and Netanyahu even last month said publicly he would like him to continue, but at this moment there is still no clear NSC chief on either side of the ocean.
But the absence of a permanent NSC chief in Israel is not seen solely as a situation imposed on Netanyahu, but seen by many as a potential passive preference of the prime minister.
Cohen, Netanyahu’s NSC chief from 2013-2015, is seen by some as functioning as an uberauthority, both running the Mossad and also being Netanyahu’s de facto national security adviser.
In addition, Netanyahu currently possesses a wide-range of cabinet portfolios, including the Foreign Ministry.
Many observers say that in his 11th year as prime minister, he does not feel as much of a need for advice on national security.
Yet former Israeli NSC chief Uzi Arad recently came out with a book called The Struggle to Establish the NSC and Strengthening it at the Highest Echelons” – in which he emphasize how critical an empowered and involved NSC is to national security – something which is hard without a chief.
Will the absence of NSC chiefs impact how the leaders plan and execute joint plans for the Iran issue, Syria and ISIS issues and Israeli- Palestinian relations? Will the attempts in pre-meetings between Flynn and Cohen and Nagel to narrow gaps and avoid misunderstandings be lost and blow up in the leaders’ faces? All of the above could be issues. On the other hand, both leaders especially want this meeting to go well and will probably do their best to smooth over unexpected misunderstandings.
Unlike some national security issues which can take years to come into focus, a number of these questions will be clarified in the coming days.