What distinguishes Israel from all other democracies is the almost complete absence of parliamentary supervision over the defense establishment.
In no other democratic country in the world does the military-security establishment enjoy complete autonomy, without even the semblance of a genuine attempt to supervise its activities. This is true of the defense budget, the army's structure, the development of weapons systems, purchases of equipment, combat doctrine, career soldiers' salaries, the appointment of senior officers and other matters that have a decisive influence on the country's future, the structure of its economy and the character of Israeli society.
In the absence of external supervision, it is impossible to prevent mistakes that lead to failures, such as expenditures to develop unnecessary weapons systems, and it is impossible to supervise the defense budget which, as a proportion of the gross domestic product, is several times that of any other Western nation.
Knesset members have of course not failed to notice the lack of parliamentary supervision, but unfortunately they are willing to accept it.
"I always ask myself, is there appropriate civilian supervision over the Israel Defense Forces and the defense establishment, and I reach the conclusion that there isn't ... and this is the fault of the MKs, who are soft on any matter that touches on this establishment," former MK Dan Tichon once said during his time as a member of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee.
But he, like his fellow committee members, had no intention of working to change the situation. The MKs on this committee continue to abdicate in favor of the army.
"Of course we are obliged to rely on the General Staff," explained former MK Yisrael Kregman, who at the time was chairman of the Knesset Finance Committee. "When it tells us that there is a need for more missiles or tanks ... after all, we don't understand these matters." It has, admittedly, been several decades since Kregman chaired the committee, but his successors have followed in his footsteps.
Recently, in order to propose an alternative, Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin and Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee Chairman Yuval Steinitz appointed a "public committee to examine parliamentary supervision of the defense establishment and ways of improving it." The committee, headed by Professor Amnon Rubinstein, submitted its report not long ago, but regrettably it contains no glad tidings.
The committee members, including two former chiefs of staff - Amnon Lipkin-Shahak and Dan Shomron - Professor Yaffa Zilbershats of Bar-Ilan University and MKs Michael Eitan and Avraham Burg, state that the Foreign Affairs Committee's "supervisory process is partial, flawed and arbitrary," but beyond this they tediously repeat the well-worn cliches and fail to analyze the true reasons for this lack of supervision.
The problem does not stem from any lack of supervisory tools on the MKs' part. The tools exist - but no one makes any use of them. Members of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee simply do not want to supervise, because they have adopted the ethos of Israel's "security culture," according to which criticism of the defense establishment in general, and the army in particular, is liable to impair their functioning.
Thus, the committee has never put forth any opinions contrary to those presented by the IDF. It has never brought about a change in the army's policies, modus operandi, force structure or equipment. It is astounding to realize that since the committee was established, it has not published a single public report that deals with issues of national security. Yet similar committees in the United States and Britain, for example, publish dozens of such reports every year.
And what do Rubinstein and his colleagues propose?
"We recommend a conceptual turnabout in everything related to this supervisory authority, in order to enable the Knesset, including its committees, to apply the same principles of supervision to the defense establishment that it applies to other activities by the executive branch. And therefore, the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee must exercise a more intense level of supervision than does any other Knesset committee."
That more or less captures the spirit of the committee's report, which is remarkably shallow and simplistic.
The Rubinstein Committee recommends setting up a new Knesset committee, a joint panel of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee and the Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, "that will deal with matters of law and justice and human rights in the administered territories." As if the problem were the lack of a body responsible for dealing with what goes on in the territories, rather than the MKs' "flight" from dealing with the ongoing warfare there. I cannot remember a single serious discussion in the Foreign Affairs Committee on the fighting in the territories, which has a tendency to influence IDF policy on the Palestinian issue.
Regarding the defense budget, the Rubinstein Committee does state that "we learned that the government's supervision of the budget proposal is minimal," yet it once again makes do with a recommendation for structural change: the establishment of a special subcommittee of the Foreign Affairs Committee that "would receive information about multiyear projects." But a special committee on the defense budget has already existed for years now - and ever since its establishment, it has been characterized by unquestioning support for IDF requests for budget increases.
The Rubinstein Committee's report was received apathetically not only by the Knesset but also by the media. And considering its contents, it must unfortunately be said that for once, this apathy was merited. These recommendations will not bring about the changes that are so badly needed.
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