Haaretz has just published a fascinating look into the dysfunctional way in which the Israeli Knesset supervises the IDF budget, weapons procurement process and other security related matters (Israel Defense Forces: Whatever Happened to Civilian Oversight?). The article is so masterful at presenting the problem that I can’t think of anything better than to quote it extensively:
What distinguishes Israel from all other democracies is the almost complete absence of parliamentary supervision over the defense establishment.
In no other democratic country in the world does the military-security establishment enjoy complete autonomy, without even the semblance of a genuine attempt to supervise its activities. This is true of the defense budget, the army’s structure, the development of weapons systems, purchases of equipment, combat doctrine, career soldiers’ salaries, the appointment of senior officers and other matters that have a decisive influence on the country’s future, the structure of its economy and the character of Israeli society.
In the absence of external supervision, it is impossible to prevent mistakes that lead to failures, such as expenditures to develop unnecessary weapons systems, and it is impossible to supervise the defense budget which, as a proportion of the gross domestic product, is several times that of any other Western nation.
Can you imagine such a thing happening within the American system (though I’m sure many a general–and perhaps Don Rumsfeld–has devoutly wished there was no Congressional oversight of the Pentagon). The very thought of such a development is unthinkable–to our credit–as a nation and a democracy.
Those who tout Israel’s vaunted democracy should remember that sometimes it is democracy not always honored in the breach. In the name of national security (and we are seeing this in our own country), much can be excused, much can be swept under the carpet. Perhaps if the Israeli political establishment engaged in tougher oversight of the IDF, then we wouldn’t have had a runaway disaster in Israeli-Palestinian relations over the past years.
Some Knesset members are aware of the problem:
“I always ask myself, is there appropriate civilian supervision over the Israel Defense Forces and the defense establishment, and I reach the conclusion that there isn’t … and this is the fault of the MKs, who are soft on any matter that touches on this establishment,” former MK Dan Tichon once said during his time as a member of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee.
But none have the political will to address it in a vigorous way. Then again, there are some who are clueless and the following passage provides insight into why this phenomenon persists so many decades after Israel elected its first parliament:
“Of course we are obliged to rely on the General Staff,” explained former MK Yisrael Kregman, who at the time was chairman of the Knesset Finance Committee. “When it tells us that there is a need for more missiles or tanks … after all, we don’t understand these matters.”
This is the heart of the problem. Can you imagine John Warner, current chair of Senate Armed Services, saying this? Believe me, I’m not saying that our form of civilian supervision of our military is a paragon of virtue, but it does provide a certain ‘breaking action’ for some of the more adventurist impulses of our armed forces. This is something that should and would be a welcome tonic for the Israeli version of democracy as well.