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Another opportunity is being missed to turn the National Security Council into what it is supposed to be: a unit that assists the prime minister in formulating national-security policy. Like his predecessors, the current prime minister, Ariel Sharon, prefers the NSC to be an irrelevant body whose prime importance is that it gives the prime minister the chance to appoint one of his cronies as its head. This is exactly the case with the appointment of the present chief of the Mossad espionage agency, Ephraim Halevy, as the next head of the NSC.

Even though an efficient and effective NSC is a necessity, Israel's prime ministers refrained from establishing such a unit. When the NSC was finally created, it was born in sin. Benjamin Netanyahu wanted to irk his defense minister, Yitzhak Mordechai, whom he had just fired, so he rushed to announce the establishment of the NSC, to which Mordechai had been vehemently opposed. Since then, compounding the fact that the NSC has become a fifth wheel in policy-making (symbolically, its headquarters is in Ramat Hasharon, far from the Prime Minister's Bureau in Jerusalem), the individuals who headed it were not suited to hold the post of adviser.

The first head of the NSC was David Ivri, a retired major general (he was a commander of the Air Force) who was for decades a senior partner in planning the structure of the Israel Defense Forces, director-general of the Defense Ministry and responsible for the country's military industries and also, to no small extent, for crystallizing the national-security doctrine. There was no reason to expect that Ivri would be able to take the necessary critical and objective view of subjects on which his personal imprint was so obvious. In addition, the prime minister had no intention of allowing the NSC to do its duty, and during Ivri's tenure, it did not in fact have any real impact on the policy making process.

The next prime minister, Ehud Barak, solved a personal problem of a friend, Major General Uzi Dayan, by making him the head of the NSC. Dayan at the time had to give up the post of deputy chief of staff, but did not leave the army, as he had hopes of being appointed chief of staff. Barak thus placed a serving general in a post wholly civilian in its essence and one that obliges its holder to be critical and unbiased in regard to the military establishment.

As a result, there was no chance that Dayan, who was waiting hopefully to become the next commanding officer of the armed forces, would be able or want to examine the IDF's policy and decisions with a critical eye. On top of this, his relations with the chief of staff, Shaul Mofaz, were so charged, that any comment or assertion by the NSC that contained even a hint of criticism of the IDF was construed to be Dayan's personal critique of Mofaz. As for Barak, he formulated his policy without taking the NSC into consideration.

Uzi Dayan, like David Ivri before him, realized very quickly that his new post was more symbolic than concrete. Some of the NSC's members resigned when they also came to understand that they had absolutely no influence on policy.

Ariel Sharon inherited Dayan from Barak and left him in his post but made no change in the pattern of decision making. Dayan and his staff wrote papers, some of which were even occasionally transmitted to the prime minister, but, at the end of the day, Sharon made policy without taking into account the NSC's recommendations and without consulting Dayan.

Sharon's decision to appoint Halevy as the next head of the NSC shows that he has no intention of altering the unit's status. According to reports leaked in the past few days, Sharon plans to give Halevy an office in his Jerusalem bureau, but in his mind's eye the prime minister apparently sees Halevy more as an emissary on secret missions that as an adviser in the realm of national security.

Indeed, the NSC cannot in any event fulfill its duty, for the simple reason that it has not been given the necessary tools. Although a formal albeit very vague, decision as to its goals exists, no decision has ever been made about its binding composition and no tradition of genuine consultation with its chief has developed since the unit's inception. The situation in the United States is very different. The National Security Council there was created under the National Security Act of 1947, which defined the goals, status and binding composition of the NSC (which includes the vice president, the defense secretary, the secretary of state, the treasury secretary and the White House chief of staff). The American NSC was given the means and resources to carry out research and collect background material to assist it in its analyses and recommendations.

The NSC in Washington has about a hundred experts working for it, professionals in various spheres whose only task is to prepare studies that will serve as the basis for the staff work of the NSC and for the position papers it draws up. In the NSC that Ephraim Halevy will take over in October, you can count the number of professional researchers on the fingers of two hands.

The upshot is that the IDF will continue to be the only body that prepares position papers that are used as a basis for government policy making. This is very convenient for Prime Minister Sharon, especially in a situation in which the senior officers of the General Staff fall into line with the force-based policy he is dictating. The problem is that in the absence of alternatives to IDF planning, not only is Israeli policy stagnant, but when the army is wrong in its recommendations, we will know this only after a blunder occurs or the failure of the proposed policy becomes apparent. Very often, that is too late.