The Comptroller's Missed Opportunity

The state comptroller overlooked the real question: If everyone agrees that there is a need for a strong NSC, why has this not come about?

There is no disagreement over the necessity of the Israeli prime minister to have a special professional staff that assists him in making decisions and "running the country." It is likewise clear that the National Security Council (NSC) has failed to fulfill this goal since its establishment in 1999, because successive prime ministers disregarded it and preferred to rely on a handful of personal confidants and aides. That is why it is a shame that the state comptroller devoted his report on the NSC to merely reiterating these complaints, which have already been raised in dozens of previous reports and recommendations.

The state comptroller overlooked the real question: If everyone agrees that there is a need for a strong NSC, why has this not come about? Why did the three NSC heads who were replaced during Ariel Sharon's term of office all leave their positions in a huff and feeling frustrated? The problem lies in the nature of the work methods adopted by the country's leaders and in a mistaken understanding of the NSC's role. The solution lies in a simple organizational adjustment.

All leaders insist on taking only people they trust into their confidence about politically sensitive matters; no leader will confide in bureaucrats who might leak inside information. The staff of the White House, the dream model of Israeli experts, is manned by what is known here as "political appointments" and not by professional civil servants. This is also the way Israeli prime ministers operated when they entrusted the management of this country's ties with the United States, or the conduct of negotiations with the Palestinians and the Syrians, to the hands of close personal associates.

Even Benjamin Netanyahu, who set up the NSC and today backs the idea of strengthening it, employed his friends - lawyer Yitzhak Molcho and billionaire Ron Lauder - as his emissaries to Yasser Arafat and Hafez Assad. And during Netanyahu's term of office, just like during the terms of Yitzhak Rabin and Ehud Barak, there were no discussions whatsoever in the wider forum about withdrawing from the Golan Heights.

The state comptroller espoused the grievances voiced by Uzi Dayan, Ephraim Halevy and Giora Eiland that they were distanced and kept isolated from Sharon. Their mistake was that they regarded themselves as the directors of an independent advisory body, similar in nature to the head of the Mossad or the Shin Bet security service, rather than as personal advisers to the prime minister. Under these circumstances, there was no chance that they would be partners to sensitive decisions.

In addition, the comptroller confused the powers of the leader with those of his advisers when he pointed out that Barak did not make the NSC party to the decision to withdraw from Lebanon, and that Sharon made his decision to disengage from Gaza "without staff work." After all, it is the prerogative of leaders to formulate policy; this is why they were elected. Barak ran for election, and won, on the basis of a promise to withdraw from Lebanon within one year. Does the comptroller believe that he had to ask the NSC's permission after he was elected?

The solution to the problem lies in unifying the NSC's tasks with those of the military secretary, who is in charge of the prime minister's diplomatic-security agenda. The military secretary speaks with the prime minister several times every day, takes part in all discussions and is privy to classified intelligence material. It is possible to fill this position with a civilian who has the right security clearance and a suitable background, instead of an officer on active duty, whose advancement is dependent on the chief of staff and the defense minister, and to make the NSC's staff subordinate to him.

The comptroller was on the mark in his analysis of the rift that exists today between the military secretary - who has the advantage of being close to and influencing the prime minister, but who lacks the appropriate staff - and the NSC, whose staff is distant from the prime minister.

But the comptroller refrained from making the obvious recommendation: to unite the two into one strong, centralized body that would be close to the prime minister and would coordinate the staff work on issues of national security.

Even then, there is no assurance that the decisions made will be the correct ones. The National Security Council in the United States worked according to the book, but nevertheless failed to prevent the imbroglios in Vietnam and Iraq.