Guarding the Guardians

The IDF needs its own, independent controller - but that would be a threat to the defense minister, the chief of staff and the military prosecution.

On Tuesday Ehud Barak's media adviser announced that the defense minister had decided to appoint Brig. Gen. Ophir Shoham head of Development of Weapons Systems, or Mafat. Shoham will be replacing Shmulik (Shmuel) Keren in the position. He did not mention that Keren is a civilian, nor whether Shoham would be serving as a civilian in his new post or whether he would be promoted to major general. Further inquiries elicited this explanation: "The decision on Shoham's appointment was made only today. The details will be worked out in days to come."

In recent weeks Barak has replaced the Defense Ministry's military secretary, director general and chief of staff, among other top officials, in a purge.

The latest improvements in the Iron Dome antimissile defense system only underscores how badly Mafat failed in the years preceding the 2006 Second Lebanon War by ignoring the experts and not placing the development of weapons to counter short-range rockets and missiles at the top of its agenda. Every defense minister, Defense Ministry director general and Israel Defense Forces chief of staff shares responsibility for this failure (as well as for the failure to combat the tunnels in Gaza, a contributing factor in Gilad Shalit's abduction), but the director of Mafat is directly responsible for the lapse.

As part of the purge Keren's brother, Brig. Gen. Yossi Beinhorn, was informed of his upcoming dismissal from the position of defense establishment comptroller. This situation was improper from the outset, as Keren was a potential subject of his comptroller brother's oversight. This situation is not the same as another pair of brothers, whose positions overlap only loosely: I am speaking here of Ziv and Ran Levy, who will soon be brigadier generals in the Israel Air Force. The former is commander of the Hatzerim base, the latter head of the Materiel Directorate.

The State Comptroller's annual report, Report 60a, was issued last week. What the state has, the defense establishment lacks; and what the defense establishment has, the IDF does not. The IDF, the Defense Ministry and, to some degree, the defense industries, are supported to the tune of NIS 50 billion yearly. This is a system that simultaneously cries out for oversight and detests it. The heads of this system take any criticism of the goings-on in their jurisdiction as a personal insult and as a stain on their record that could haunt their future careers.

Retired justice Micha Lindenstrauss brought a new fierceness to the role of state comptroller. More problems have been exposed and brought to the knowledge of the responsible parties; more officials are taking care not to transgress, and not just to avoid being caught. The defense oversight department in the State Comptroller's Office was already impressively efficient under Lindenstrauss's predecessor, Justice Eliezer Goldberg, but with Lindenstrauss in charge it has gained momentum. The oversight teams, lead by Maj. Gen. (res.) Yaakov Or, are examining both more broadly and deeper the organizations under review, particular regarding the shared purviews. A review of the unclassified sections of the reports reveals them as describing bleak prophecies that were fulfilled.

The classified sections are submitted only to the prime minister, the defense minister, the minister of intelligence and atomic energy (currently Dan Meridor), the heads of the security agencies and the "forum of two" - the head of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee (Tzachi Hanegbi) and of the Knesset State Control Committee (Yoel Hasson; the head of his subcommittee on defense is Otniel Schneller). The committee heads have the prerogative to reveal all or part of the contents of the reports, but prefer to reserve for themselves the exclusivity of this knowledge. Consequently, they and the members of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee's subcommittee on the secret services are privy to more defense secrets than most cabinet ministers.

The state comptroller does not attend cabinet meetings. But the defense establishment's comptroller is invited to discussions with the general staff. In every self-respecting army in the world, in every branch and command, there is a comptroller, sometimes called inspector general. For one month only, in the summer of 1948, the IDF had an inspector general - David Shaltiel, who was promoted to major general for that purpose. When he was reassigned the position disappeared. It reappeared later in limited form as accountant general.

After the Yom Kippur War the Agranat Commission, which included two IDF chiefs of staff who had not felt the need for an internal comptroller, Yigael Yadin and Haim Laskov, and one state comptroller, Yitzhak Ernst Nebenzahl, issued a binding recommendation to appoint a comptroller for the defense establishment and for the IDF. The recommendation was implemented to disappointing effect, on two levels. The Defense Ministry's oversight mechanism is tight-lipped and of dubious effectiveness, while the army managed to evade internal oversight. Retired senior officers were appointed as inspectors of the system, backed up by a deputy with the rank of brigadier general who seeks to return to the IDF. Accordingly, the brunt of their criticism was directed at the Defense Ministry. The IDF had only an oversight and monitoring division.

In recent weeks, the IDF has been busy amending the Supreme Command order that defines the authorities of oversight so that the defense establishment comptroller will also be the IDF comptroller of the IDF. Until now the defense establishment comptroller has been appointed by the cabinet, at the defense minister's recommendation. Now the IDF chief of staff's consent will also be required.

But the IDF needs its own comptroller, someone with professional authority and personal standing.

The requirements of the position seem self-contradictory. In the general staff only officers at the rank of major general and above are accorded respect. But the only ones of these who generally aspire to such positions are retirees suffering withdrawal pains - officers who miss the regular contact with the army, are grateful to the defense minister and chief of staff for rescuing them from the dreariness of retirement and are glad to take a job involving lots of information and little influence. They are not itching for a fight.

The exceptions are few. There's Or, who was also a thorn in khaki backsides as coordinator of activity in the territories. Young officers have found IDF Ombudsman Maj. Gen. (res.) Yitzhak Brik to be a tenacious and resolute investigator of misconduct. But this is tactical criticism, which the senior command is happy to note while boasting of its openness. Were Brik to be appointed IDF comptroller he would soon become a strategic threat to the IDF chief of staff and the defense minister.

The IDF does not like independent power centers within its walls. It is content with the president of the military court of appeals, a position that until the mid-1980s was a consolation prize for a veteran brigadier general who was ejected from the main channels of command. The cover-ups related to this position compelled the defense establishment to accept outside intervention in the form of appointing a jurist as president. Granted these jurists came from within the system, but they came into conflict with the chief military prosecutors seeking the same major general rank. The only combat commander in the lot was the previous court president, Maj. Gen. Yishai Bar, currently a corps commander who keeps in touch by videoconferencing while on sabbatical abroad. Had he given up his field command Bar would have been a worthy candidate for IDF comptroller. Those who make the appointments would not want him. He is liable to be a critical comptroller.

In recent years, the Shin Bet security service and the Mossad espionage agency have had effective internal comptrollers. The state comptroller proves year in and year out how important and serious external oversight is for the defense establishment. Had the government bothered to appoint for the IDF an internal comptroller or an inspector general with an image of integrity and independence, Israel would have been better prepared to respond to the challenge posed by the Goldstone report. In the absence of such a position, the state comptroller could serve this function, either voluntarily or at the behest of the Knesset.