Background: The stillbirth of Israel's NSC

The NSC was meant to be an inter-agency body that would advise the government on security and foreign policy.

Binyamin Netanyahu decided, when he was elected prime minister in 1996, to establish a National Security Council that would advise the government on security and foreign policy. It would be an inter-agency body, and not replace any of the existing security, intelligence and foreign policy institutions. Netanyahu asked the then head of intelligence at the Mossad, Uzi Arad, to advise on the matter. Arad suggested that then-Defense Ministry director-general David Ivri was the best person to give birth to the project. Several senior defense officials also worked on the initiative, and Netanyahu asked Dan Naveh to coordinate the effort. These serious men put together an ambitious plan, working on a hierarchy and procedures. Within a month and a half the project came to an abrupt end, when then-defense minister Yitzhak Mordechai decided to kill the project. Arad said Mordechai stopped work on the project because he didn't see the need for a defense advisory body. "He thought of himself as 'Mr. Security' and didn't want anybody else advising the prime minister on these issues," Arad said. Mordechai wouldn't allow Ivri to continue working on the NSC. Ivri went to Naveh and said he couldn't carry on, and the thing never really got off the ground. Following the establishment of the Ciechanover Commission of Inquiry into the botched assassination attempt on Hamas chief Khaled Mashaal in Jordan in 1997, Arad raised the idea of restarting work on the NSC with Netanyahu, arguing that now everybody would agree that such an advisory council was of the utmost necessity. Mordechai, according to Arad, killed the idea again, telling him in no uncertain terms that he would not allow the establishment of the NSC. In 1999, Netanyahu fired Mordechai over political disagreements, and Moshe Arens took over. Arad jumped on the opportunity, telling Netanyahu that Arens would agree to the plan, largely because he was educated in America and the US had a powerful National Security Council. Now another problem presented itself: the country was headed to elections, and Netanyahu didn't want it to seem as if he was establishing the NSC as an election gimmick. Arad, fearing there was a chance that Ehud Barak would win the election and cancel the NSC, asked Netanyahu to agree to a quiet sounding out of Barak on the idea. It was a risky move, since if the news got out that Netanyahu was even countenancing a defeat in the election, it would harm his campaign. Very discreetly, Arad asked a trusted person the question, which went something like this: If we establish a NSC and Barak gets elected, will he dissolve it or let it continue to exist? The answer came back: Barak would not scrap the NSC. Arad told Netanyahu that they were on "firm democratic grounds" and work on the NSC continued. Soon thereafter it was brought to the cabinet for approval, and Israel's National Security Council was officially established. Indeed, everyone did blame Netanyahu for pulling off an election gimmick, even though, as Arad said, Netanyahu first came up with the idea in 1996. In any case, despite assorted commissions of inquiry calling for the establishment of such a body, Netanyahu's was the first government to make it happen. Barak won the premiership and kept his promise not to dissolve the NSC, but also brought in former Mossad chief Danny Yatom as his strategic advisor, creating a parallel system. Instead of functioning as an integrator and a harmonizer between all the security and diplomatic departments, the NSC was overshadowed by Yatom's team. Furthermore, the NSC was headquartered in Ramat Hasharon, away from the corridors of power in Jerusalem. "The golden rule is that political influence rises exponentially the closer you are to the decision makers," Arad said, coloring his remark by saying that someone who sits in Ramat Hasharon may as well be sitting in Newfoundland, and that someone who sits in the "Aquarium" of decision-making in Jerusalem may be a nobody, but he still has influence. Ariel Sharon didn't trust Uzi Dayan, Barak's choice for head of the NSC. He thought Dayan was a political appointment, and believed that he leaked information to the press. Sharon kept Dayan at a great distance from the "Aquarium." "Uzi Dayan further eroded the NSC because he focused on social issues," Arad said. Dayan, a former deputy chief of General Staff, has gone on record saying that Israel's socioeconomic problems are a strategic threat and need to be included in the country's national security estimate, something Arad says is absurd. "Have you ever heard the British or American heads of National Security Councils talking about social welfare issues? No, because they're too busy with national security issues. Do you see them deciding to raise or lower interest rates?" he said. Dov Weisglass, Sharon's chief adviser, outflanked new NSC chief Ephraim Halevy, the wily former head of the Mossad, blocking his access to Sharon, and that was the end of that. Next, Giora Eiland tried to increase the influence of the body, failed, and left in frustration. When current NSC head Ilan Mizrahi took over from Eiland, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert made him subordinate to his chief of staff, Yoram Turbovich, brilliant as he may be, but without any significant security or diplomatic experience. However recently this situation has somewhat changed and Mizrahi now reports directly to Olmert. No prime minister has ever given the NSC the power to set the national security agenda and to be at the forefront of coordination between the several agencies. The real national security adviser has always been the person who is on the other side of the phone when Condoleezza Rice calls, is present in the discussions with the US president, flies with the prime minister to all his meetings overseas, sets the agenda for the cabinet meetings, looks at the security and diplomatic information, and is there when the prime minister needs to make decisions. It doesn't matter what title this person holds. All that is of real importance is whether that person can enter the prime minister's bedroom in the dead of night, without asking for anyone's permission. Not even the head of the Mossad can do that. Only the prime minister's military secretary can. The currency is access and proximity: He who sets the agenda decides the issues. As of now, the NSC is hostage to the whims of the serving prime minister, who has to decide whether or not to breathe life into the body of a council so obviously necessary to this country's survival. Israel, since its inception, has never had enough intelligence, military strength and diplomatic support to deal with all of its enemies at the same time. What has pulled the country through time and again is its ingenuity and its cunning, and some luck. A little planning here and there would also help.•