Wanted: A trustworthy Knesset defense committee
Where was the Knesset's Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee when, for over a year now, tensions in the highest echelons of the defense establishment have been apparent for all to see?
Has anybody noticed that the chairmanship of the Knesset's Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee has become a political football?
For some weeks now, there has been no chairman, so the committee has not been able to meet. But the leaders of our two largest parties - Likud and Kadima - don't seem to care much about who is going to replace Tzachi Hanegbi as chairman. They seem to have more important matters on their minds.
And no wonder. What used to be the watchdog of our defense establishment - investigating here, calling to account there, recommending and criticizing - seems to have fallen into a deep slumber in recent years. Of course, the committee still meets regularly, and its members have the opportunity to hear ministers and senior defense officials declaim before them. And following the meeting, they can leak some of what they have heard to the press. But as a watchdog, exercising its duty of parliamentary oversight over the establishment charged with responsibility for our country's defense, the committee has essentially fallen asleep.
The executive branch may feel that this is just as well. Its members are sure they know what they are doing. "You can trust us", they seem to say.
And granted, there was an earlier era, during the many years of Labor Party rule, when the committee was also little more than a rubber stamp. But that changed in May 1977. With the subsequent establishment of small subcommittees, no nook and cranny of the defense establishment was left immune from parliamentary oversight. So what happened over the last few years?
Take, for example, the government's decision to purchase a squadron of F-35 aircraft in the United States. That's a major decision by any measure, mortgaging American aid for many years. Was that decision discussed by the committee?
Some might respond that there is nothing to discuss when that is what the Israel Air Force wants. But it is not that simple. Many knowledgeable aeronautical experts believe that it is not the right aircraft for the IAF. And obviously, this procurement will take the place of alternate systems that might be purchased for the same money.
The fundamental questions that the committee should have discussed are the following: What other alternatives to the decision to procure F-35s were considered? Did the decision have to be made now, when the aircraft will not be delivered for another six years? What influence will the future appearance in our region of the Sukhoi 50 - developed by the Russians as a rival to the F-22, and superior to the F-35 - have on the challenges facing the IAF in future years?
What of our own capability in developing fighter aircraft? Does it still exist, or is that great technological and economic asset being allowed to fall into disuse? Obviously, this warrants discussion. And were Israeli aeronautical engineers, who are some of the best in the world, consulted before a decision was reached? It is astounding that the committee simply ignored all this, trusting the government to make the right decision.
Finally, what is the IAF's role in any future conflict, in which we are told the entire civilian population of Israel will be exposed to attacks by thousands of rockets, and our air bases might be targeted as well? Can we rely only on aircraft operating from these bases to deal with that threat? What other means, of either a responsive or deterrent nature, are being considered?
Where was the committee when all these matters were decided? Where was the committee when, for over a year now, tensions in the highest echelons of the defense establishment have been apparent for all to see? Were they having a negative effect on Israel's security?
The list of issues in which the committee should have been involved goes on and on. And the upshot of all this is that an important link in the decision-making process on defense matters has been missing in recent years. Being periodically updated by government and Israel Defense Forces representatives is only the first part of the task that falls on the committee's shoulders. There is much more to do.
Hopefully, when a chairman is finally chosen, he will take the committee's mandate seriously. That mandate is to make the defense establishment accountable to it, to discuss major security issues in depth and, by proper parliamentary oversight, to contribute to the security of the country.