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Politics Paralyze Israeli Oversight of Defense, Foreign Affairs

Feb. 26, 2014 - 04:35PM   |  
By BARBARA OPALL-ROME   |   Comments
Israeli reserve soldiers carry their gear at the Elyakim military base. The agency with the power to approve call-up of reserve forces lacks a chairman. (Agence France-Presse)
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TEL AVIV — Israel’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee (FADC), the parliamentary panel with oversight of the nation’s defense establishment, has been rendered dangerously dysfunctional due to political infighting over the committee chair, lawmakers here said.

Roughly akin to the Armed Services and Foreign Relations committees of the US House and Senate, the FADC oversees policies and operations of the Israeli military, Defense Ministry, Mossad and Shin Bet secret services, Atomic Energy Commission, Foreign Ministry, and National Security Council.

While it lacks budget authority, the FADC and its subcommittees can block major spending programs and demand government accountability and reform of intelligence and security procedures.

Perhaps more important, the panel is required by law to approve government call-ups of reserve forces, which comprise the bulk of Israel’s military muscle in maneuvering ground wars.

Since November, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Finance Minister Yair Lapid, head of Israel’s second largest voting bloc, remain deadlocked over who will replace Avigdor Lieberman as committee chairman.

Lieberman, Netanyahu’s partner in the coalition government, left FADC four months ago to reclaim his Foreign Ministry portfolio after being cleared of long-pending corruption charges.

Lapid insists the coalition agreement that added 19 seats to Netanyahu’s government allows him to appoint a chairman from his own centrist Yesh Atid party. Netanyahu is equally adamant of his right to fill the chair, yet unwilling to risk a coalition crisis.

Stopgap measures to extend the temporary leadership of Tzahi Hanegbi, a former FADC chairman who Netanyahu wants in the job, are set to expire Feb. 23.

It remains unclear whether the full plenary will back an alternative proposal, approved by the committee in a Feb. 17 vote, for the Knesset speaker to convene FADC meetings and assign ad hoc chair status to members of his choosing. The proposal to amend parliamentary procedure was an unprecedented, near desperate attempt to forestall a shutdown of the high-priority panel.

“This has never before happened to such an important committee,” said Rivka Kenrick, a Knesset spokeswoman. “The intention is to ensure a functioning committee, at least through the spring recess that begins March 22.”

Meanwhile, opposition leader Isaac Herzog has threatened to take Netanyahu to Israel’s Supreme Court for failure to resolve the political faceoff obstructing legally mandated oversight of Israel’s defense establishment.

“I have no words to describe the depth of this crisis. We’re talking about paralysis over the nation’s most sensitive issues,” said Eitan Cabel, an FADC member representing the Herzog-led opposition Labor Party.

In a Feb. 17 statement, Cabel said the dysfunction borne from government indecision was not only illegal but a danger to national security. “If, God forbid, there’s an event tomorrow, this committee has a role in drafting reserve forces. But starting on Feb. 23, this arm will be absent from the decision-making process.”

Free Rein

Aside from veteran, carefully vetted investigators from Israel’s State Comptroller’s Office, the FADC is the only body authorized to review the inner workings of Israel’s security and intelligence arms. But unlike the State Comptroller, which requires many months or even longer to investigate and report on management flaws and institutional deficiencies, FADC can summon top leaders for immediate clarification of suspected failings.

“The State Comptroller releases annual reports whose findings may no longer be relevant for remedial action. But [FADC] can respond to issues of concern in real time,” said FADC spokesman Assaf Doron.

Ephraim Sneh, a former deputy defense minister and veteran lawmaker who served more than a decade in multiple FADC leadership roles, said the committee cannot function without a full-time, qualified chairman. Failure to agree on a committee chair has “degraded this to the lowest level of politics,” he said.

“They’re forcing the Knesset to forfeit the only control that our Israeli democracy has seen fit to provide ... to prevent the government from having completely free rein over critical security matters.”

In a Feb. 18 interview, Sneh said FADC, particularly its subcommittee for intelligence, has a mixed record of affecting meaningful change or, conversely, serving as a rubber stamp.

“If it has serious, responsible and knowledgeable leaders, it can push for needed change and reform. ... If leaders are not qualified, have a history of media grandstanding and cannot be trusted with sensitive information, the defense establishment will not take it seriously.” ■


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