For those of you who harbor quaint notions about Israeli democracy, tonight’s post should further disabuse you of your illusions. In most western democracies, the legislative branch of government exercises some oversight of military and intelligence functions. In the U.S., this includes House and Senate committees charged with reviewing, approving and funding the U.S. military and various intelligence agencies, both overseas and domestic. Though there is always a tenseness in this relationship and the executive branch at times resists such oversight, the legislative bodies have ultimate authority and can use their subpoena power if their rights to oversee their charges are rejected.
Not so in Israel, where civilian bodies, including both the Knesset and even the prime minister, often exercise nominal control of these government functions. I’ve reported in the recent past, that Defense Minister Ehud Barak refused to allow chief of staff Benny Gantz to testify to a Knesset committee about Israel’s covert programs to contain Iran. Now, none other than the prime minister himself has directed the Shabak chief to refuse to appear before the same committee to address questions about the Eilat terror attack. Yoram Cohen, Shabak director, sent an underling in his place who also refused to discuss the terror attack when asked point-blank by the committee, which is chaired by former chief of staff Shaul Mofaz.
Haaretz has only reported the latter fact, that a Shabak officer refused to answer questions about Eilat. In truth, my own well-placed source confirms that Netanyahu refused to allow Cohen to even appear before Mofaz’ committee. Perhaps one should even question the Israeli media itself as to why it hasn’t reported that Netanyahu actually refused to allow Israel’s most senior intelligence officer to testify before the Knesset. Is my source the only one who knows this happened? Or do other reporters know the truth and can’t or won’t report it? Frankly, I don’t know the answer. I only know that Haaretz and other outlets reporting the story are only reporting half of it, which in turn does a disservice to the Israeli public and Israeli democracy (or what’s left of it).
Ynet indirectly affirms the report of my source by quoting Avi Dichter, himself a former Shabak chief and now Knesset MK, as saying that when he was its director he appeared before the Knesset committee Mofaz chairs. Maariv quotes Dichter using extremely harsh language, labelling the decision a “gag order” placed upon the Shabak director and chief of IDF intelligence.
Clearly, this is an attempt, so far quite successful, by the prime minister to deny a legitimate legislative body oversight of the IDF and intelligence bodies and to review failures when they occur. If such a thing happened in America, there would be immediate subpoenas filed to compel Cohen to testify and the matter would end up in court. Eventually, even if the president dug his heels in hard (which rarely happens, these things are usually ironed out), the court would likely find the executive would have to bend to Congress’ will–at least in terms of appearing and answering questions, if not changing policy.
What is truly poisonous about this is that it leaves the executive to police itself and learn from its own mistakes without the benefit of the people’s elected representatives being able to intercede and learn what happened in events like Eilat and how to avoid them in future. A society whose legislators are bound and gagged when it comes to exercising this function is a society in which the blind lead the blind. And it’s no surprise that such a nation will repeat its mistakes over and over because no one can come forward from the legislature and say: No, that didn’t work, you’re not going to try that again. You’re going to try something else.
I’ve posted here that the Israeli approach to the Eilat attack was a fashlah of massive proportions. When things like this happen you need legislative oversight to uncover what went wrong and prevent it from happening again. Such activity by the Knesset would reassure the people that someone, somewhere is concerned about the welfare of the nation. When the prime minister prevents this, it will only erode confidence that the military and intelligence circles can learn from their mistakes.
Can you imagine the aftermath of 9/11 and Pres. Bush refusing to coöperate with the 9/11 Commission? This is something like what Bibi has done in this case. He’s thumbed his nose at Mofaz and told him: I don’t owe you nuthin’. Losing sight, of course, of the fact that in a true democracy the leader does in fact owe a great deal to the legislature. In a real democracy, the legislature could turn around and reject the next appropriation bill for the agency refusing to coöperate. The only problem is that in Israel this type of independent behavior is unheard of. No Knesset member would dream of rejecting an IDF or intelligence appropriation. In fact, these budgets are so hush-hush that there are hardly any members who know what’s in them. They ratify them in a pro forma manner with hardly any discussion or debate.
Of course, there are calls for cutting the defense budget heard when belts need to be tightened. But invariably, all it takes is one terror attack for those voices to be quashed, but good.
This article first appeared at Tikun Olam