Adviser and Not Chairman

For many years it had seemed obvious that the prime minister was in need of a staff dedicated to advising him on national security issues – a National Security Council, essential in preparation for discussions by the Security Cabinet.


By Moshe Arens

(A version of this column appeared in Haaretz on September 24, 2002.)

For many years it had seemed obvious that the prime minister was in need of a staff dedicated to advising him on national security issues – a National Security Council. Such a staff seemed to be essential in preparation for discussions and decisions by the Security Cabinet or prior to decisions falling under the sole authority of the prime minister.

In the absence of such a staff, the prime minister had to rely solely on the advice rendered by the Israel Defense Forces or other security agencies, or on personally arbitrating adversary proceedings between conflicting views presented to him, such as the annual decision on the size of the defense budget. However, for many years most Israeli prime ministers felt they could do without such a staff, or when a prime minister came along who expressed a desire to establish a National Security Council, the defense minister would object under the belief that on security matters his advice was all that was needed.

In February 1999, prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu decided that he wanted a NSC while his defense minister, rather than raising objections, gave his enthusiastic support. Thus the National Security Council, initially to be headed by Maj. Gen. (res) David Ivry was finally established. On Ivry’s appointment as ambassador to Washington, he was replaced by Maj. Gen. Uzi Dayan who has made the NSC what it is today. Now that Dayan is being replaced by Ephraim Halevy, it is an opportune time to review the functioning of the NSC with a view to bringing about some much needed changes.

During his tenure as head of the NSC, Uzi Dayan turned it into a think tank dedicated to analyzing matters bearing on the nation’s security and identifying major security issues. Such a wide mandate was necessarily accompanied by a significant expansion of the NSC staff and a parallel growth in the NSC’s budget. Was this really necessary and was this the original intention when the NSC was set up?

Israel already has a relatively large number of think tanks associated with academic institutions or operating independently. Most of them are either dedicated to issues related to national security or else deal with such matters in addition to other areas of specialization. There seems little need for another think tank under government auspices. Whatever it can do is being done, or can be done as well, by the existing array of organizations.

The original intention in setting up the NSC was to model it after the NSC in the United States. There it is a staff dedicated to assisting the president in making decisions relating to national security. This is done by providing analyses and identifying alternate courses of action, all at the request of the president and for the benefit of the president. This work is carried out under the direction and supervision of the president’s national security adviser. It is the president himself who is the chairman of the NSC.

Although Israel, unlike the U.S., has a parliamentary system of government, the need for and the functions of the NSC here are essentially no different – to provide assistance to the executive branch of the Israeli government in taking decisions bearing on national security.

The deviation in the Israeli NSC’s scope and direction of activities may have had its beginning with the title that was given to the person heading the NSC. The title of chairman, rather than national security adviser to the prime minister, created the impression of a degree of independence from the prime minister that was not intended and is not needed in this case.

The last NSC report issued under Uzi Dayan’s stewardship provides a clear indication of what the NSC was not intended to do. Its recommendation that Israel now initiate unilateral separation from the Palestinian population, regardless of its possible merits, is advice that was not sought by the prime minister.

The subsequent calls for the prime minister to distribute the report to a wider public was a further indication that the NSC had overstepped the mandate originally envisioned for it.

With the changing of the guard at the helm of the NSC, it is hoped that it will become, as originally intended, a staff to assist the prime minister, cut down in size and limited in function, headed by an adviser to the prime minister, and not a chairman.

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