Think About It: Parliamentary oversight of foreign policy

"This, incidentally, is what happened after World War I, when Congress refused to approve US participation in the League of Nations."

US Secretary of State John Kerry testifies before a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing on the Iran nuclear agreement in Washington, July 28, 2015.  (photo credit: REUTERS)
US Secretary of State John Kerry testifies before a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing on the Iran nuclear agreement in Washington, July 28, 2015.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
In a little less than a month we shall know whether the US Congress will prevent President Barack Obama from signing the nuclear agreement with Iran. At the moment it doesn’t look as if two thirds of the representatives and of the Senators will vote against the agreement and thus override the president’s veto on a decision by a majority of less than two thirds to reject the agreement.
Should the unexpected nevertheless occur, this will lead to the US not joining the agreement, which will nevertheless go into effect once the other participants in the negotiations sign it.
This, incidentally, is what happened after World War I, when Congress refused to approve US participation in the League of Nations after the war by a majority of over two thirds, even though president Woodrow Wilson had been one of the architects of the new organization. Since Wilson had insisted on linking the approval of the Treaty of Versailles (the peace treaty between the Allies and Germany) with the approval of the League of Nations Covenant, the US ended up not joining either of these agreements, which nevertheless went into effect without it.
Parliamentary oversight of the government’s foreign policy is part of the power of oversight which the legislature has over the executive branch. However, as is the case with regard to oversight in the sphere of defense policy, this oversight is much weaker than that in other policy spheres. The reason for this is that foreign and defense policies are generally regarded as prerogatives of the government, frequently requiring secrecy and rapid decisions.
Despite the overall weakness of parliamentary oversight over foreign policy, it is considered more effective in presidential systems than in parliamentary systems, due to the fact that there is a more clear-cut separation of powers, and because in the presidential system one can have a situation in which the majority in the legislature does not support the president.
Nevertheless, since the end of the Cold War and spread of the phenomenon of international peace-keeping forces intervening in conflict arenas all around the world, even in some parliamentary systems foreign policy oversight has become more effective. Thus we have the example of the UK parliament rejecting, in August 2013, Prime Minister David Cameron’s declared threat to send military forces to Syria to deter the use of chemical weapons by Syrian President Bashar Assad. Cameron abided by parliament’s vote, even though he was not obliged to do so constitutionally.
And what about the situation in Israel? In Israel parliamentary oversight over foreign affairs and security matters is even weaker than in other parliamentary democracies.
In the sphere of security this is understandable, given Israel’s unique security situation. In the sphere of foreign policy this is a little less understandable or justifiable, even though part of Israel’s foreign policy is linked to security considerations.
The weakness of foreign policy oversight manifests itself in the fact that Knesset is probably the only democratic parliament that doesn’t have a separate foreign affairs committee. The Knesset has a Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, which spends very little time dealing with foreign affairs issues per se, for which there is a designated sub-committee that meets on average once a month.
The Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, including all its subcommittees, is shrouded in a thick layer of secrecy.
It is the only Knesset committee whose minutes are not published; since the new Knesset wing was opened in 2008, entrance into the committee’s compound is severely restricted; and it is the only committee which has its own research team that is completely separated from the Knesset Research and Information Center, and whose research papers are never published on the Knesset website.
While there might be justification for all of this with regard to defense issues, it is certainly not justified in the case of most foreign affairs issues.
All attempts to establish a separate foreign affairs committee have failed, even though this failure never resulted from an overt rejection of the notion that foreign affairs deserve a separate committee, but rather from all sorts of administrative excuses.
Strangely enough all the more recent proposals to establish a separate foreign affairs committee came from women MKs: Collete Avital (Labor), a former Foreign Ministry employee with the rank of ambassador; Amira Dotan (Kadima), a former army officer with the rank of brigadier general; and Einat Wilf (Labor, Atzma’ut), a former intelligence officer in Unit 8200, with a PhD in political science, who was last to raise the issue, in the course of the 18th Knesset.
Wilf pointed out that especially in a period in which there is growing delegitimization of Israel in the world, it is important that foreign policy should be dealt with as a separate issue to security, and that parliamentary scrutiny in this sphere ought to be upgraded.
Since Wilf made her proposal things have just gone from bad to worse. Today it is Prime Minister Benjanim Netanyahu who is acting foreign minister on a part-time basis, with a deputy minister – Tzipi Hotovely – who believes that Israel’s foreign policy should be explained on the basis of God’s promises to the People of Israel. The Foreign Ministry itself seems to be in a state of advanced disintegration as a growing number of issues have been removed from its responsibility and handed over as tribute to disgruntled Likud ministers.
De facto Israel’s foreign policy is today totally controlled by Netanyahu, who simply acts as he pleases, apparently with little serious consultation with non-partisan, professional experts, or scrutiny by the Knesset.
It is impossible to get an effective debate going on how Israel should contend with growing delegitimization around the world, which has any chance of affecting Netanyahu’s foreign policy activities, especially if it concerns the question whether Israel itself might have contributed to this delegitimization through its policies and activities.
Even in those cases in which there are no serious differences of opinion regarding goals – as in the case of the nuclear agreement with Iran – Netanyahu is totally unwilling to seriously listen to criticism of the “how,” even though the long-term consequences of his chosen modus operandi – like his last speech to Congress – are liable to be catastrophic to Israel. In short, Netanyahu regards any criticism of his foreign policy as no more than irritating background noise.
There is also the problem of some of Netanyahu’s embarrassing ambassadorial appointments. No one denies that he has a right to appoint a certain number of ambassadors, however no one, including the Knesset, has the power to review the suitability of those appointed.
Among the more scandalous appointments have been that of American-born Ron Dermer, who is associated with Republican neo-liberal circles, as ambassador to Washington, at a time when there is a Democratic president in the White House (he is effectively persona non grata there); of Danny Danon, who Netanyahu simply wanted to rid himself of for personal political reasons, as ambassador to the UN; and of Fiamma Nirenstein , a member of the Italian Assembly of Deputies in the years 2008-13, on behalf of Silvio Berlusconi’s People of Freedom Party, as ambassador to Rome.
In the US such appointments would have had to be approved by the Senate, and would most likely have been thrown out. In Israel it is doubtful whether the sub-committee on foreign affairs as much as deliberated on them.
Maybe if Netanyahu were to appoint a horse as ambassador, someone would wake up to the seriousness of the absence of parliamentary scrutiny.
The writer is a political scientist and former Knesset employee.