Olmert's Plus: He's Not a General

Olmert can improve the process of setting national security policy if he manages to change the status of the National Security Council and transform it into a central tool in decision-making.

The major advantage of Ehud Olmert as the person meant to formulate national security policy is that he has never been a general. Olmert is liberated from the military thought pattern, whereby every problem has a military solution. He also does not feel an automatic identification with the security establishment and the senior commanding officers.

Olmert has also encountered an opportunity that his predecessors have intentionally squandered. He can improve the process of setting national security policy if he manages to change the status of the National Security Council and transform it into a central tool in decision-making. The NSC was established by Benjamin Netanyahu in March 1999, but a short time later he was forced to leave the Prime Minister's Office. Ehud Barak and Ariel Sharon, the generals, knew everything and understood security better than anyone and formulated policy primarily based on intuition and a small circle of associates.

Barak and Sharon even made strategic decisions (the withdrawal from Lebanon and the disengagement plan) without an organized process that would have included administrative work and an examination of all aspects of the decision from a systemic perspective. Both of them preferred to ignore the NSC and therefore did not bother to move it closer to them, leaving it in Ramat Hasharon, far from the Prime Minister's Office.

Olmert can learn about the shortcomings and flaws in the process of setting policy in Israel (which can be ameliorated through intelligent use of the NSC) through the state comptroller's report on the council that is due to be released in three months. Olmert could have gotten the impression from the main points of the report, which were sent to all those involved to get their reactions, that most of the criticism targets the Prime Minister's Office. Some criticism is also geared at the functioning of the council itself, but the significant part of the report is the emphasis on the negative ramifications of Sharon and Barak's refusal to use the important tool that was available to them.

The process of determining national security policy has an almost set pattern. When an issue arises that requires a decision, the prime minister and the government are presented with the assessments/recommendations of the security establishment, without any other alternatives. None of the governments have managed to establish anything that parallels the Israel Defense Forces and would be able to come up with policy suggestions. And so Israel's national security policy is based solely on the alternatives that the IDF presents.

The problem is that military people always suggest solutions and paths of action that are based on the use of, or at least the reliance on, military power. In September 2001 the state comptroller wrote about the negative ramifications of the fact that "a General Staff strategic analysis group, made up only of military people whose point of view is primarily military, is supposed to carry out a strategic analysis of political and civil subjects for the political echelon."

In the same report, which was written about two and a half years after the National Security Council was established, the comptroller noted the problematic nature of the policy-making process and the abstention from the use of the council. He said the problem was the lack of "a group in addition to the IDF that is capable of providing [the politicians] with an analysis including the entire significance of a given reality, starting from the systemic level and on to the strategic-military level, and ending in the political level."

Nothing has changed since then, although to Sharon's credit it must be said that after he decided on the disengagement, he understood that it was preferable to give the NSC, rather than the IDF, the job of translating the concept to the language of action. An analysis of the implementation of the disengagement plan shows that the council's planning work made a decisive contribution to the plan's success.

Few countries, and few policy-makers in other countries, are compelled to cope frequently with far-reaching strategic challenges and make decisions with decisive consequences for the future of the country. The need for the assistance provided by the council increases when the prime minister is a civilian and not a retired general, and when it is likely that even the defense minister will not come from the ranks of senior officers, and at a time when it is clear that in the coming months, the government will have to decide on important strategic issues.

Indeed, the entire purpose of the National Security Council is to present decision makers with alternative policies along with those presented by the security establishment. The council is not subject to the army or other security institutions, and the work of its members is freed of the constraints of aspirations of advancement and responsibility to elements of the security establishment. Only a group such as the security council can examine all the issues on the agenda from a systemic point of view that takes into account considerations that are not purely military.

In conversations with the National Security Council chief, Major General Giora Eiland (Res.), Olmert did not make explicit promises in connection with the future of the council. However, Olmert's associates have indicated that he plans to move the council to the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem and transform it into a central tool in the policy-making process. One can hope that this plan will indeed be implemented, and that Olmert will not listen to the advice of other participants in the national security system who see a strong, effective and influential National Security Council as a threat to their standing and influence.