When Ephraim Halevy understood that the prime minister was not interested in his advice, he got up and went home. Ariel Sharon would not have fired him if Halevy had wanted to remain National Security Advisor, dealing with marginal matters and taking pointless trips. But Halevy, who failed in his efforts to be influential, did not want a prestigious title with a hollow purpose.
Halevy's resignation poses a governmental challenge to Sharon: what to do with the National Security Council and how to organize decision-making at the national level. After four years of activity, the NSC is having trouble finding its proper place in the formulation of foreign and defense policy. Its founders' intention, backed by endless numbers of reports and expert recommendations, was to create an alternative and counterweight to the defense establishment's aggressive monopoly over sources of information, intelligence assessments and recommendations for action. But the result has fallen far short of expectations: The council deals with long-term planning and marginal matters that are far from the attention of the prime minister.
The political echelon in Israel is held captive by the Israel Defense Forces and the intelligence community, because it lacks an independent unit that is exposed to sensitive material and can ask questions before decisions are made. Prime ministers usually depend on their own military experience and judgment. It is true that tedious staff work is not always the recipe for successful decisions. The orderly United States, with its rich bureaucracy and organization, got entangled in Vietnam, Lebanon and Somalia and failed in the Israeli-Arab peace process. But the Israeli "system," in which decisions are improvised and shot from the hip, is an almost guaranteed recipe for failures. That is the way it is now in day to day decision-making about military operations and assassinations, and that is the way it has been for decades in entanglements like the settlements, ultra-Orthodox draft deferments, the occupation of Lebanon and various failed defense projects.
Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz related this week how as chief of staff, he "cooked up" the decision to arrest Tanzim chief Marwan Barghouti, despite opposition from the political echelon, which was afraid of an escalation. At the beginning of Operation Defensive Shield, Mofaz ordered the army to search for Barghouti. One day it reported to him that Barghouti was in a certain building in Ramallah. He ordered the house surrounded, despite the hesitations of the politicians who are nominally his superiors, and then called "the person who had to be called," announced that Barghouti was besieged and recommended capturing him. What if he is killed, Mofaz was asked. The chief of staff answered that there is nothing to worry about, Barghouti is a coward and will not be shot. "I highly recommend it," Mofaz said. The political echelon conceded, without much choice. If it had refused, it would have risked a hostile leak. That is how Barghouti was captured, "quaking with fear in a sofa, hands in the air," according to the army.
When he became prime minister, Sharon said he would use the professional staff of the NSC, but he prefered to work with his close associates. After the unnecessary siege of the Yasser Arafat's Muqata compound in September, Sharon acceded to a proposal by Shimon Peres and Avi Gil and established a political steering committee headed by Sharon's chief of staff, Dov Weisglass. The team, which included representatives from the IDF, the intelligence community, the NSC and the Foreign Ministry, dealt with Israel's response to the road map, and it convenes regularly to prepare for meetings with American representatives. It managed to achieve internal agreement within the system, narrowing disputes and reducing leaks on political matters. But its influence on defense policy is nil: The operational decisions are made by Sharon, Mofaz, their military liaison officers and a handful of senior security officials.
Even Sharon, with his wealth of experience, needs his own staff, just as Mofaz established his own political-security branch headed by Amos Gilad instead of making do with proposals from the IDF general staff. Therefore, Sharon should dismantle the NSC in its current form, take it out of its remote office in Ramat Hasharon and move it to the Prime Minister's Office and put someone powerful, well-connected and authoritative at its head. It will not be easy. The defense establishment has so far managed to foil all such efforts and has protected its exclusive proximity to the political echelon. But Sharon has proven that he is not afraid of reforms. Just as he established a government without the ultra-Orthodox, he could establish a political-security staff for the prime minister.
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