Problematic Advisers

If there were any doubts regarding the serious problems in the process of setting national security policy in Israel, the state comptroller's report on the National Security Council has shed further light on how grave the situation really is.

If there were any doubts regarding the serious problems in the process of setting national security policy in Israel, the state comptroller's report on the National Security Council has shed further light on how grave the situation really is. "The report's findings raise concerns regarding the quality of decision-making processes on the issue of national security," the comptroller wrote. Even though the report dealt with the status and functioning of the National Security Council, which was established in 1999, this document is a serious indictment of all prime ministers and governments, whether they served before or after the decision to form the NSC.

The most important strategic decisions in the country's history were not preceded by orderly staff work, and they were made without any evaluation of their long-term implications. The comptroller pointed to many such decisions, including in the sensitive and critical realm of developing Israel's strategic deterrent potential. Decision makers were only presented with a single option, which was formulated by the defense establishment, mainly the Israel Defense Forces. This led to a situation in which most diplomatic decisions made by Israeli governments originated in military thinking, which mainly advocated solving problems through the use of military power.

Obviously, this situation did not escape any of the prime ministers. Experts, researchers, public committees and even statesmen drew their attention to the inherent problems in the way national security policy is formulated. All of them cited the need for the prime minister and the ministerial security committees to have permanent access to advice on matters of national security.

Recommendations for the creation of such an advisory body were presented to every prime minister, from the Yadin-Sherf Committee of 1963 through the Agranat Committee of 1974 to various academic studies and public committees established by the governments themselves. But only in 1999 was the National Security Council finally established, by prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The intentions were good, but the implementation was poor. Since its establishment, not a single prime minister has made serious use of the NSC, and the most important decisions were once again made without staff work, which the NSC could have provided. The comptroller noted that "when this review was completed, in April 2006, the defense establishment's staff agencies continue to constitute the dominant element in preparing staff work for the decision-making process, while in practice, the NSC does not for the most part serve as a staff agency for the prime minister and the cabinet alongside the defense establishment organizations, and it still lacks appropriate and significant weight as an objective body working on behalf of the prime minister and the government, despite the cabinet decision of 1999."

The comptroller's report also noted a phenomenon that was made possible by the absence of other bodies to advise the prime minister: The prime minister's military secretary, a military officer in active service, has accumulated unprecedented power to influence the decision-making process. "The military secretary operates within the prime minister's bureau, and is among the few aides to the prime minister who is positioned inside the limited physical space within which the prime minister works. He also reads intelligence and security-related material on behalf of the prime minister, and serves as the liaison with all the security organizations. He is also the sole [other] participant in one-on-one work sessions between the prime minister and the heads of the security organizations, and also serves as the prime minister's representative on the committee of security service heads ... In practice, the military secretary to a very great extent controls the prime minister's daily diplomatic-security agenda, as he is essentially the person who 'makes or breaks' all these matters for the prime minister. In other words, he has a great deal of influence over the decision as to which subjects will be raised, and when they will be raised, in various forums involving the prime minister."

In the past, military secretaries held the rank of lieutenant colonel, but over the years, they have risen in rank and are now major generals. The combination of rank and proximity to the prime minister has led the military secretaries to misinterpret their function. For example, Major General Yoav Gallant, who was military secretary from 2002-2005, told officials from the Comptroller's Office that he "saw his function as an adviser to the prime minister on defense matters." In other words, the military secretary has taken upon himself the role of the head of the NSC. Indeed, military secretaries often kept the head of the NSC away from the prime minister. There was even a case in which a military secretary blocked NSC chief Giora Eiland physically from participating in a strategically important meeting in the Prime Minister's Office.

When Ehud Olmert became prime minister, he declared that it was necessary to upgrade the NSC and that he intended to make appropriate use of it in setting policy. But his decision to make the NSC subservient to his bureau chief, Yoram Turbowicz, suggests that nothing has changed, and the problems in the decision-making process will not be corrected. Anyone who needed proof of this received it in the way that the government decided to embark on the war in Lebanon.