Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee Needs a Role, Rather Than a Chairman

In spite of its statutory role, the Knesset Committee has no bearing on foreign affairs and defense policies and isn’t involved in important decisions.

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Everybody seems to agree that the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee is ‘the most important Knesset committee.’ The problem is the huge gap between its image as the Knesset’s most prestigious committee and its actual influence.

In practice, the committee has no bearing on foreign and defense policies or the size or make-up of the IDF’s budget, and it isn’t involved in any of the important decisions concerning the army. That is the case, despite the committee being officially responsible for “supervising the state’s foreign policy; its armed forces and security.”

The committee isn’t fulfilling its role. At best, committee members receive (limited) information from the Defense Ministry, without even trying to supervise or inspect the army’s actions. This fact is easily verified. Some committee members acknowledge it openly, while others whisper the truth in secret. Former Knesset member Avshalom Vilan was interviewed on the matter years ago: “This is a very strange committee. When I joined I was sure I was entering the most holy sanctuary, that this was the committee that determined the priorities of the defense apparatus. I soon discovered I was wrong. chief of staff Shaul Mofaz dictated everything; we had absolutely no influence.”

One has only to examine the websites of the U.S. Congress committees dealing with foreign policy and security in order to see the huge difference. On the sites of the Armed Services Committee, Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense, Subcommittee on Intelligence, and Committee on Foreign Affairs one can find dozens of decisions concerning security and strategy, which bind the executive branch. These committees and subcommittees not only debate the equipment plans of the armed forces, but also determine the eventual outcome of these plans.

Thus, for example, when the U.S. Air Force requested congressional approval for the acquisition of 132 B-2 bombers, (costing $2.2 billion each,) the Senate Defense Committee on Appropriations approved purchasing only 20 of the bombers. And here? Can anyone imagine the Air Force requesting the purchase of 75 F-16 Fighting Falcons, and receiving the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee’s approval to purchase only 11? It would never happen.

A committee member told me of a ‘debate’ recently regarding the acquisition of F-35 fighters: “Three Air Force officers arrived with PowerPoint presentations. After a few slides, most of the committee members were lost amid the huge amount of data. We were helpless in face of the Air Force representatives, and eventually nodded in agreement to the request.”

The committee doesn’t even attempt to influence the defense budget. On this topic Vilan said: “We have MK’s who lose their tongues and have no idea what is going on when presented with these slides… the debate was like at a Byzantine court… there is no true parliamentary supervision of the budget. It is all a show, causing an impossible situation. We’re not doing our jobs.”

Vilan stressed that the committee was being run in an “amateurish, sloppy manner, which is very worrying.” A decade has gone by since Vilan’s warning, but it seems that nothing has changed. Benjamin Netanyahu and Yair Lapid can continue their quarrel as to the chairmanship of the committee, but it really doesn’t matter. At present, the committee has more of a symbolic value than any practical role.

The brass line up before the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee: it wouldn't happen in Israel.Credit: AP