Strong Advisor to a Weak Government

Uzi Arad was 17 years old, a lad on a summer hitchhiking trip in Arizona, when a kind driver stopped for him. The young Israeli could see a sharply-pressed military uniform, adorned with many splendiferous medals, hanging in the back seat.

"Which branch of the military are you in?" he asked.

"USMarineCorps," the American slurred his words. The passenger asked the soldier to repeat what he had said. "U.S. Marine Corps," the driver was careful to enunciate. "Marines."

Arad, still unsure of what his benefactor had said, apparently did not respond with the appropriate expression of respectful awe. "Get out," the offended driver suddenly ordered the young man, leaving him in the middle of the wilderness.

That incident with the toxic Marine reverberated in Arad's memory even 45 years later, as he flew to Washington last Wednesday to meet with retired General James Jones, the former supreme commander of the Marines, who wore the Marine uniform when he headed up the forces of NATO. Arad's and Jones's paths have crossed repeatedly during recent years, first against the backdrop of their mutual interest in cementing relations between both sides of the Atlantic Ocean, and subsequently after the Annapolis conference, when Jones was appointed [then Secretary of State] Condoleeza Rice's special military envoy and met with Israeli opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu, accompanied by his advisor Arad.

In recent weeks they have become colleagues, the national security advisor to President Barack Obama and the counselor to Prime Minister Netanyahu. Their most recent meeting is in preparation for tomorrow's meeting between Obama and Netanyahu, designed to build bridges and clear away potential pitfalls.

In spite of their common mission, Jones and Arad are as different from each other as the systems of government in Jerusalem and Washington: The Israeli model is more akin to the British one, updated two years ago by Gordon Brown when he established a cabinet-level defense and foreign affairs committee. Arad is approximately the same age as Netanyahu, and has been allied with him and the Likud for more than 12 years. Jones is an entire generation older than Obama, an independent who has identified with Republicans as much as with Democrats.

Arad hoped to head Israel's National Security Council almost as much as he wanted to witness Netanyahu's return to the premiership. They have similar backgrounds, including being educated in top American universities in the 1970s and speaking East Coast-accented English with mother tongue-level fluency. When it comes to Netanyahu, Arad has no sense of humor. When he hears friends criticize Netanyahu (whether or not Sara is a target as well), he goes ballistic. If Netanyahu has any flaw whatsoever that renders him less than a perfect leader, Arad has yet to discover it.

Netanyahu, just before he was unseated as prime minister in 1999, was the one who decided ("in consultation and coordination with Defense Minister Moshe Arens and Foreign Minister Ariel Sharon") to establish the National Security Council. Arad suggested at the time that he be subordinated to the head of the National Security Council, Major General (res.) David Ivri. Netanyahu's electoral defeat by Ehud Barak signaled the beginning of the immediate decline of the National Security Council, which experienced the rapid turnover of six subsequent chairmen.

A month and a half ago, Arad's two-fold dream came true. Netanyahu was sworn in as prime minister, and appointed his long-time advisor to the position of National Security Council chairman. He is likely to emerge as a strong advisor to a weak government - because just when the conditions ripened for an influential National Security Council and chairman, even stronger forces began buffeting the administration and its leader. The National Security Council's foundation and structure are sturdier now than they have ever been during the decade of the council's existence, but the ground beneath its feet is as unstable as shifting sands.

Arad's two greatest assets are the National Security Council Law and Netanyahu's complete personal confidence. A third asset, slightly less valuable, is his experience in the intelligence and diplomatic establishments, as head of research for the Mossad, advisor to the prime minister (and subsequently to the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee) and a professor who has remained in touch with the system's powers-that-be - while being refreshingly removed from the staleness that can afflict the corridors of the establishment. Were this latter asset sufficient, Arad's illustrious predecessors as chairmen of the National Security Council - Ivri, Major Generals Gideon Sheffer, Uzi Dayan and Giora Eiland; retired Mossad chief Ephraim Halevy; Halevy's deputy at the Mossad Ilan Mizrahi and Brigadier General (res.) Danny Arditi - would also have been successful at maintaining the council's prestige.

Thanks to his close relationship with Netanyahu, Arad is likely to be spared any rivalry with other top staffers close to the prime minister, such as the chief of staff, the diplomatic advisor (a position that has been annulled), the bureau chief, the director-general of the Prime Minister's Office and the military attache.

The National Security Council Law that was passed last year reinforces the status of the council, its chairman and even its deputy chairman (who is appointed to a five-year term) vis-a-vis the cabinet, ministerial committees, the army - including military intelligence and the planning division (which is responsible for situational analysis in the General Staff) - the Shin Bet security service, the Mossad, the Atomic Energy Commission and the police. All these agencies must appear before the National Security Council chairman if and when summoned to meetings that he calls, at the rank determined by the chairman, and submit to him "complete information without delay" - including copies of the most highly classified material transmitted to the prime minister.

The chairman of the National Security Council attends all meetings of the committee of agency heads, which has yet to convene without Netanyahu present. He is the man who prepares, recommends and issues analyses of the current situations. The law requires him, albeit not his deputy, to have been a citizen of Israel for seven years prior to his appointment. Hence, for example, Stanley Fischer can be governor of the Bank of Israel but not chairman of the National Security Council; similarly, nor could [former US National Security Advisor, the Jewish statesman Henry] Kissinger serve as chairman - although he would be permitted to serve as Arad's deputy.

The impetus for strengthening the National Security Council was the disregard shown the council by former prime ministers Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert, when they decided to evacuate the Gaza Strip and to go to war in Lebanon, respectively. The State Comptroller's report, and subsequently the report of the Winograd Commission, forced the politicians to do more than simply remain indifferent - just as the Agranat Commission report had compelled the Mossad to improve its research capabilities, right before a young Dr. Uzi Arad joined the Mossad and the Foreign Ministry as a researcher in the field of energy.

Arad has ambitious plans for revolutionizing and staffing the National Security Council. His deputy-designate is Brigadier-General (res.) Avriel Bar-Josef, the director of the Knesset's Defense and Foreign Affairs Committee and formerly the chief equipment officer for the Israel Navy. Under the guidance of former Defense and Foreign Affairs Committee chairmen Yuval Steinitz and Tzachi Hanegbi, Bar-Josef transformed the directorship of that key parliamentary committee into a powerful position overseeing the executive branch, including all its agencies and classified operations.

Arad also intends to fill senior National Security Council positions with a brigadier-general who has just finished an important job in the intelligence corps, and a colonel (res.) who also served in military intelligence and is an expert when it comes to Israel-U.S. relations and strategy. IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi, who is known to favor a strong National Security Council, has seconded three colonels from the Air Force and Military Intelligence Corps to the council, and plans to bring them back to promoted ranks in the IDF with the knowledge gained from membership of the council.

The National Security Council's authority to "formulate alternatives to orders of priority within the overall purview" of the defense budget is liable not to translate into anything significant in the real world, where the defense budget has become a football in the hands of such powerful forces as the prime minister, the defense minister, the finance minister and the chief of staff. Moreover, should Netanyahu ask Arad to draft for him "opinions and analyses in the realm of intelligence," to use the terminology in the legislation, this could lead to clashes with such agencies as military intelligence, the Shin Bet, the well-entrenched Mossad, and even the diplomatic research arm of the foreign ministry, as long as Avigdor Lieberman is the foreign minister.

Finally, we can expect conflicts between the National Security Council Law, the Basic Law on the IDF and the Shin Bet Security Services Law - as well as opposition by the State's Attorney's Office and the investigations division of the Israel Police to the requirement to report to the National Security Council (as intermediary to the prime minister) when it comes to certain sensitive security investigations.

Never before in the history of the state have we had such a politically weak prime minister, who was forced to appoint 30 ministers and surrender the defense and foreign affairs portfolios to other parties. For this reason, what happened this week in the economy and budget is likely to recur in defense and foreign affairs - which are defined, for the purposes of the National Security Council, as "ending at the shores (and the borders and security fence) of the country" - meaning, not matters of domestic policy, social policy, or economics and finance (with the exception of international economics).

Should Netanyahu emerge unscathed from his meeting with Obama, and should his administration survive forthcoming crises, then Uzi Arad may yet have the opportunity to head the most influential National Security Council Israel has had since Avraham Tamir, who held a parallel position - de facto, if not de jure - in the 1970s and 1980s under Shimon Peres, Yitzhak Rabin, Ezer Weizman, Menachem Begin and Ariel Sharon.

Still, as improved as the council's work may be, and as welcome a development as this might be, the National Security Council will not be able to save Netanyahu from the vagaries of leadership, politics and himself.