Call to Order / Olmert Gives National Security Council a Room of Their Own

After the publication of the American National Intelligence Estimate concerning Iran's nuclear program, several telephone conferences were held between heads of national security councils in the West.

From the United States, National Security Advisor Steve Hadley participated in these conversations. Britain was represented by the prime minister's diplomatic advisor and head of Foreign and Defense Policy Simon McDonald. Professor Uzi Arad, a National Security Council (NSC) founder, told the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee last Monday that Israel was represented by the chief of staff at the Prime Minister's Office, Yoram Turbowicz.

Arad's statement made it clear to the members of the committee exactly whom national security chiefs abroad consider to be their contact in Israel. It isn't outgoing NSC head Ilan Mizrahi or acting NSC head Brigadier General (res.) Dan Arditi.

Two discussions this week at the Knesset covered a proposed law to normalize the NSC's status. The body, since its establishment in 1999, has usually been regarded as one to which no one pays any attention. There have already been five council heads and most of them resigned in frustration with their inability to influence.

The Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee held a rare public discussion last Monday on the proposal put forth by MK Amira Dotan and Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense chairman MK Tzachi Hanegbi, both of Kadima, which has already passed its first reading. The plenum has passed in its first reading a government proposal for a law (government proposals come up directly for a first reading) on the same issue. The intention is to combine the discussion of the two proposals.

In explanatory material for the law proposed by Dotan and Hanegbi, it is stated that "the aim of this law is to establish the National Security Headquarters and its head as the focus of decision making and to affirm, conclusively, that the work of the headquarters is not an alternative, but rather an integral link in the chain of government decision-making in the area of foreign affairs and defense. Therefore it is necessary to regularize status of the head of the defense and foreign affairs headquarters so that he will serve as a key figure in the decision-making process, in the area of foreign policy and defense."

The legal advisor to the NSC, Attorney Miri Frankel-Shor, the legal advisor to the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, has prepared a document that compares the two proposals. There is a lot of similarity between them, but it is the difference in one provision that will determine more than anything whether, once the law is passed, the council will have real influence or people will continue to scorn it and walk all over it.

In the proposal by Dotan and Hanegbi, "Office holders at the Prime Minister's Office who deal with foreign policy issues, international relations and ties with the diaspora will be subordinate to the head of the security diplomatic headquarters (the council head's title under the proposal)." This proposal, without a doubt, ensures the seniority of the head of the NSC.

In the government's proposal, "The prime minister will establish rules for mutual relations between the NSC head and other office holders at the Prime Minister's Office." The government's proposal ensures the person who deals with matters of security and international relations at the PMO will continue to be whomever the prime minister chooses in future as well.

The story that symbolizes even more the irrelevance of the NSC is that of former council head Major General (res.) Giora Eiland, who first read about the decision on the disengagement on Haaretz's Web site. Under the government's proposal for the law, the NSC chief would also apparently continue to read about important decisions on the Internet.

Here are several more differences between the decisions: Dotan is proposing NSC heads will set the agenda for the security cabinet. The government version holds that he will only suggest an agenda. The government proposal would make it obligatory to invite the NSC head to formal meetings of the government and ministerial committees. Dotan's proposal would also make it obligatory to bring him in on the committee of secret service heads, every discussion the prime minister holds on matters of national security and every meeting between the prime minister and heads of the defense system and the intelligence community; in short, it is something else entirely.

Arditi said he believes the NSC's situation has improved considerably in the wake of the Second Lebanon War and the Winograd report.

"My ability to influence decision-making is far better than what it was a year ago," he says. Among other things, according to him, the council has prepared 12 cabinet discussions of the Winograd report's conclusions, it is writing a new national security situation assessment and is dealing with the implication of the Brodet report on the defense budget.

Arad was not impressed. He said he believes that when the council is delegated to deal with too many issues, especially long-term issues, it distances it from policy and security matters.

"Anyone who deals with everything deals with nothing," he explained. "In the United States and Britain, the national security councils deal only with foreign affairs and defense. They do not prepare situation assessments, they do not deal with the defense budget and they do not deal with long-term planning. Anyone who is proposing the NSC should deal with long-term planning is doing this in order to distance them from current issues."

Nonetheless, Arditi had one important bit of news. In January 2008, an NSC situation room will become operational at the PMO. Now all that remains is to wait and see to what extent prime ministers will make use of its services.

Committees of Arabs

Three out of every four appointed committees during the past three years have been Arab. There have been 24 appointed committees in the past three years, of them 17 in Arab local councils, one in a mixed city (Lod) and 16 in Jewish local authorities. In five of the Arab councils, only the council has been sent home and the council head has remained in his job. In Israel, there are about 80 Arab local authorities and 170 Jewish local authorities. That is, in one out of every five Arab local authorities there is an appointed council, and in one out of every 25 Jewish localities.

These figures were given by Interior Minister Meir Sheetrit (Kadima) in reply to a parliamentary question from MK David Azoulay, the point man for Shas on matters of local government and the Arab sector. The figures, however, spread over the tenures of three ministers: Ophir Pines-Paz (Labor MK), Roni Bar-On (Kadima, currently Finance Minister) and Sheetrit himself, and it is clear that is a problem of all the governments of Israel. The significance of these figures is a large part of Israel's Arab citizens are not afforded democracy in local government.