Rejected But Necessary

The National Security Council can be of no use to a prime minister who is too arrogant to seek its assistance.


By Moshe Arens

(A version of this column appeared in Haaretz on October 6, 2006.)

Shortly before the 1999 Knesset elections, prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu decided to establish the National Security Council. He had the best of intentions, and had it been utilized as originally intended, Israel’s national security certainly could have benefited in the years that followed. But it was not to be. For the past seven years the National Security Council has been little more than a useless appendage to the government bureaucracy.

The latest state comptroller’s report on the National Security Council and its lack of involvement in the government decision-making process has focused public attention on what could and should be an important part of the national security sphere.

The Israeli National Security Council is not, as its name might imply, modeled after the U.S. National Security Council. That body, established by the National Security Act of 1947, is headed by the U.S. president and includes some of his cabinet members. Its Israeli equivalent is the security cabinet, which has existed for many years. The Israeli National Security Council was intended to assist the prime minister and the cabinet in preparing for the latter’s discussions and decisions. Its U.S. equivalent is the National Security Council advisor and his staff.

Under Henry Kissinger, this position became central to the American decision-making process on security matters, presenting the president with the best possible options. The Israeli National Security Council was supposed to fulfill a similar function. Unfortunately, that has not happened. If it is to take its rightful place in the all-important decision-making process on security issues, it is important to understand what is blocking it.

For many years the current bodies involved in security issues – like the Israel Defense Forces intelligence branch, the Mossad and the Shin Bet security service – had a built-in objection to the establishment of a national security council. They felt their voices were enough for the ministers and that no additional opinions were needed, while the defense minister usually had no need for opinions from bodies not under his control.

But most of the time, the biggest obstacle was the prime minister himself, who either did not feel he needed professional assistance to reach decisions, or else preferred not to face conflicting opinions. In 1977, as a first-time Knesset member in the opposition, I presented a motion for the agenda calling for a Knesset debate on the need to establish a national security council. When my motion reached the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Security Committee, then-prime minister Yitzhak Rabin explained why there was no need for such a body, and the motion was promptly thrown off the agenda.

When Netanyahu proposed the establishment of the National Security Council in 1999, I was defense minister. I supported the proposal, while the foreign minister, Ariel Sharon, raised no objections so long as foreign affairs were not included in the council’s mandate. Thus, partially amputated, the council came into being, only to find that when Ehud Barak became prime minister and defense minister, he made it clear he had little use for it. As prime minister, Ariel Sharon had a similar attitude, preferring to consult with his friends and cronies at his weekly ranch forum. Thus neither the 2000 unilateral withdrawal from Lebanon nor the 2005 Gaza disengagement were subjected to the kind of analysis and weighing of alternatives that the council could have provided.

It therefore should have come as no surprise that when Ehud Olmert entered the Prime Minister’s Office, he took a similar attitude. Going a step further than his predecessors, he decided the National Security Council head should not report directly to him, turning the council into an irrelevant body that had no part in decisions made during the Lebanon war. And the results speak for themselves. The National Security Council can be of no use to a prime minister who is too arrogant to seek its assistance.

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