Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Knesset Members Get a Classified Report During the Yom Kippur War

The 19th Knesset will be sworn in today. (The Knesset website should be updated later today to reflect the change.) Something like 50 of its 120 members are new at their job, while a similar number just lost theirs, most of them unwillingly. Since some people invest tremendous efforts in becoming MKs, it's worth asking if it's an important job; the answer is that sometimes it certainly can be, but not always--a point the newbies and the veterans might wish to keep in mind, if only to ensure more significance and less insignificance.

Today's document demonstrates that sometimes the insignificance can pop up even where it's not expected. The document is a section of the stenogram of the discussion in the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee from October 8, 1973.

Of the twelve permanent Knesset committees, the Foreign Affairs and Defense is easily the second most prestigious - the most powerful, of course, being the Finance Committee, which is the one that prepares the budget for legislation. Nothing can be more powerful in government than handing out the money. Still, having parliamentary oversight over both foreign affairs and defense in a conflict-ridden country like Israel is important. Opposition parties generally send their top-tier MKs to the FA&D; coalition parties send the top MKs who aren't otherwise occupied by being government ministers. (Note to our American readers: in Israel, being a parliamentary democracy, there's significant overlap between the legislators and the ministers).

So it was October 8, 1973, the third day of the Yom Kippur War, and the FA&D was convened for its daily report on the war. The first few pages of the stenogram deal with a technical matter: the Ministry of Defense had published an emergency decree to requisition heavy transportation vehicles, and it needed the Knesset (represented by this committee) to authorize it. There was never any doubt that the committee would comply, but before doing so the members had all sorts of questions to the MoD's attorney. How will payment be made to the owners? (A: according to the law.) Is it arbitrary? Are trucks flagged down and requisitioned? (A: the owners know if their vehicles are registered for emergency requisitioning, and the practice is that they're called in individually.) Why was the order signed on the 10th of Tishrei? That's Yom Kippur? Perhaps we should post-date the order? (A: The 10th of Tishrei was the day the war started. Fact.)

Having finished the technical stuff, the committee turned to hearing a report on the military situation. A careful reading, however, shows that this, too, may have been more ceremonial than true parliamentary oversight. First, because of the official doing the reporting. Major General Aharon Yariv had until the previous year been the head of Military Intelligence, an important and well-informed job; but he had retired in 1972, and had only been called up as a special advisor to the Chief of Staff on October 6th. Which means the army was sending a reservist to report to the Knesset because all the people with real jobs were busy (if not overwhelmed) with running the war. The best indication, however, is the content of the exchanges between Yariv and the MKs, who came armed with things they had heard on the media, or simple rumours, and wanted them verified. See page 5, for example:
Yariv: So that's the situation on the Golan. Sadly, I must inform you that the Golani brigade failed to re-take the position on Mont Hermon.
Menachem Begin: The report about the crumbling of the Syrian line was not accurate?
Yariv: I don't think so.
Benjamin Halevy: "They've begun retreating": true? "We're chasing them"?
Yariv: Technically true, in that there were Syrian forces who retreated, and some of ours followed them. But let's not imagine a collapsing Syrian army with the IDF racing towards Damascus.
Gideon Hausner: I saw an item in the paper about how the IDF is going to push the Syrians back to the previous line and then stop. My question is what's the basis for this?
Yariv: My question, too.
Becker: I also hear that the families have been allowed to return to the Golan settlements they were evacuated from?
Yariv. I haven't checked. I imagine it's only the men, and most of them have been mobilised anyway.
Lanadu: I heard a report that the air force has freedom of the skies? What about the Syrian anti-aircraft missiles?
Yariv: Within the range of the Syrian anti-aircraft missiles the IAF's freedom of action is limited.
Landau: I don't understand?
Yariv: Within the range of the Syrian anti-aircraft the ability of our air force to operate is limited.
Halevi: If the reports on the radio aren't accurate, and essentially are misleading, who's going to fix the false impression?
Yariv: We're not responsible for the radio.
Halevi: They don't get their information from official sources?
Yariv: As I've already explained, the military censor does his best that no operational secrets leak out, that's all. The radio is sovereign. But perhaps I can see what can be done.
Zadok: So it's not a media policy?
Yariv. No.
Landau: So did we bomb the Damascus airport?
Yariv: No. It's an international airport.
Refael: Did we operate according to plan yesterday?
Yariv. Yes. The plan was to hold the line and bolster it.
Refael: So we attained yesterday's goals?
Yariv: No. We stopped when their reinforcements arrived.
[Referring to a an IDF position to which there had temporarily been no contact] Landau: What do you mean there was no contact with them?
Yariv: I'm asking you. Maybe you can explain to me. When there's a war on and the lines get cut and the equipment is damaged, there's no contact.
Landau: That looks very simple to you. To me it doesn't look simple.
Zadok: Of the area of the Golan we previously controlled, how much do we now control?
Yariv: I don't know. Because I don't know exactly where our forces are. Perhaps even some of them have crossed the previous line [eastwards, into Syrian territory].
What's the moral of the story? That war is chaotic, perhaps; and that there are times when the army can't really offer clear reports, not even to the legislature; and that at such moments, the oversight of the legislature, which is crucial in a functioning democracy, isn't of much use, and probably can't be expected to be, either.

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