Three and a half years ago, then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert signed one of the most important national security laws in Israel's history. It was duly recorded in the government gazette "Reshumot," but since then, it has merely lain there, a stone no one bothers to turn over. Yet implementing that law, the National Security Staff Law, would do wonders to improve the way the government makes policy.
The law defines the goals, working methods and powers of the "National Security Staff," which is supposed to do "staff work for the prime minister and the cabinet relating to the State of Israel's foreign and security affairs." The vital need for establishing such an agency has been noted by every commission of inquiry that investigated failures in the field of national security, from the Yadin-Sherf Commission of 1963 through the Agranat Commission of 1974 to the Winograd Committee of 2007.
Inquiry commissions, the state comptroller and more than a few academic studies have pointed out the flaws in Israel's decision-making process, which are rooted in the absence of planning agencies dealing with national security that aren't part of the Israel Defense Forces. The result of this state of affairs is that the process of formulating policy is de facto subordinated to the army and the defense establishment. Military considerations thus sometimes predominate over diplomatic considerations.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's establishment of the National Security Council in 1999 didn't improve the situation, because no prime minister since has ever made real use of it. Its location - far from the Prime Minister's Bureau, in the Israel Military Industries complex in Ramat Hasharon - merely underscores its irrelevance.
The National Security Staff has 11 different functions, according to the law. The most important are "to prepare the discussions of the cabinet and its committees, presenting alternatives regarding the issues discussed ... [as well as] the differences between the alternatives and their significance; to be responsible, on the prime minister's behalf, for inter-organizational and inter-ministerial staff work on foreign and security affairs; to prepare ... at least once a year, a one-year and multi-year assessment of the diplomatic-security situation ... [that] would be discussed by the ministerial committee on national security at least once a year; to examine the State of Israel's security doctrine and propose updates for it; to study important security initiatives ... including formulating alternatives."
Think how many arguments could have been prevented, and how much money could have been saved, had the prime minister implemented this agency function: "to prepare staff work for the prime minister in advance of discussions of the defense budget ... including formulating alternatives on the basis of reasoned priorities." The head of the National Security Staff can "hold discussions to which representatives of the defense agencies would be invited," and "anyone invited would have to attend the discussion."
In addition, "all information on foreign and security affairs sent to the prime minister's attention would also be brought to the attention of the head of the NSS. ... The head of the agency would be authorized to demand information" from any defense agency.
This was a good law, and an important one. But it seems doubtful that Netanyahu intends to implement it. The prime minister, like his predecessors, prefers to continue being dependent on the army's commanders, and effectively being captive in their hands. That's a pity, because a functioning, effective National Security Staff could prevent the government from making erroneous and even disastrous decisions.
Just imagine what might have happened had a representative of the National Security Staff participated in the three-hour discussion in July 2006 that ended with the decision to launch the Second Lebanon War. Think what would have happened if they had presented an alternative to the plan proposed by the IDF chief of staff, or even just pointed out the flaws in the IDF's plan. If that had happened, the cabinet might not have voted so hastily to approve that miserable war.
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