Government stumbles in a divided Israel

Posted in Israel / Palestine , United States | 08-Jan-07 | Author: Steven Erlanger| Source: International Herald Tribune

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert

Clashing personalities and priorities

JERUSALEM: Two of Israel's most important relationships in the world are with the United States and Egypt. In the past 10 days, the Israeli government of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has managed to embarrass both countries.

First, Defense Minister Amir Peretz approved the building of a new settlement in the occupied West Bank, in the Jordan Valley, far beyond the current separation barrier, and then seemed astonished when the United States called the action a violation of commitments made under the 2003 peace plan, known as the road map.

Then, Thursday, only hours before Olmert was to sit down at a summit meeting with the Egyptian president, Hosni Mubarak, the Israeli Army conducted a botched arrest raid in daylight in the center of Ramallah, the capital of the West Bank. In the ensuing mayhem, four Palestinians died, 20 were wounded, the target got away and Olmert had to sit through a humiliating tongue-lashing on live television from Mubarak.

Neither incident was of fundamental importance, and neither, it seems, was intended to create the ensuing ruckus. And neither action, Olmert's aides insisted, had been approved by the prime minister.

But together, Israeli politicians and analysts suggest, the moves reflect a malfunctioning government, deeply split over personalities, politics and policies. It is a government that has lost the confidence of most Israelis, according to the opinion polls, which makes Israeli leaders even less likely to take bold political steps domestically or internationally.

It is a government weak on security experience, as well, meaning that Olmert of Kadima and Peretz of Labor are unlikely to challenge the views and actions of the Israeli military.

This picture does not include the bitter rivalries within the Labor Party itself, as Peretz appears fatally weakened, or between Olmert and his Kadima party colleague, Tzipi Livni, the deputy prime minister and foreign minister, who Olmert thinks is angling for his job.

"There's a mess, but it's part of a more general mess," said Colette Avital, a senior Labor legislator who serves on the Foreign and Defense Committee. "There's a breakdown in communications between the prime minister and the minister of defense. It's enough to look at them together. When they sit down, they don't say a word."

On Friday, Olmert denied a report that he would fire Peretz, but there is little doubt that he may do so if the Labor Party itself does not persuade its current leader to change portfolios.

Adding to the tension is a traditional attitude by the military that it should be the prime judge of security issues.

"Over the years, the army and intelligence have called the shots, no matter the political impact," Avital said.

"There's a decision made in principle in a given scenario, but when and how to do a raid is left to their discretion and they don't give a hoot about the political timing. No one coordinates with the political level and there's little civilian control over operational decisions."

The situation becomes worse, however, when the military has little respect for its political masters, Avital concedes, suggesting that Peretz's time as defense minister is limited.

Shlomo Avineri, a former Israeli official who teaches at Hebrew University, says the events of the last few weeks are accidental, but inevitable. "This is a government where the prime minister and defense minister don't really control their own people in the security services and don't feel strong enough to challenge them," he said. They are unable to read the military mind the way that former generals like Rabin and Ariel Sharon could. "Both Olmert and Peretz are on the defensive," Avineri said. "It's a bad scene, and it doesn't make for strong government."

Mark Heller of the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University said the problem "goes beyond the prime minister and defense minister not respecting one another." Worse, "neither one is respected by the public after the Lebanon war, especially in security matters. So neither of them is prepared to put his judgment up against that of a high-ranking military officer."

Miri Eisin, a spokeswoman for Olmert, said she had never seen "Olmert so angry" as he was about the Thursday raid while he was about to meet Mubarak. The military "had the authority to carry out a raid, but this goes beyond authority to common sense," she said. "No one in the army was thinking about the timing and relevance."

After the fuss over the new settlement, Maskiot, Peretz insisted that his predecessor had really approved it, and then the government argued that it had been set up as a settlement in the early 1980s, even though it had fallen into disuse and was only being used for military training.

"These are lame excuses, and anyone can see through them," Heller said. "Notwithstanding the rhetoric, it's clear that the government doesn't have the political courage to enter into a confrontation with settlers."

Such incidents will not bring down the government, Heller said. "But they are more straws piling on its back, continually undermining confidence in its capacity to function as a responsible government," he said.