Ehud Barak as Convergence Chief

Ehud Barak's military and political experience is being squandered. Appointing him to chair the National Security Council could benefit Olmert's government.

The five and a half years of the current conflict with the Palestinians are full of missed opportunities. Two of them, on the Israeli side, were well-documented in the press: the assassination of wanted Tanzim operative Ra'ed Carmi, which pushed Fatah into a wave of suicide bombings in early 2002, when there had been a period of relative quiet; and the relative miserliness that Israel demonstrated toward the Mahmoud Abbas government during the hudna (truce) of summer 2003.

However, it seems that the biggest missed opportunity of all was also missed by the media. In the first half of 2005, before the disengagement plan was executed, Palestinian terror was reduced to levels as low as during the earliest days of the intifada. The Israeli security services reached a particularly high level of operational efficacy, managing to foil nearly every attempt at attack from the West Bank. In Gaza, Hamas lost its appetite for suicide missions following a wave of assassinations in the ranks of its political wing. And in Cairo, representatives of the Palestinian Authority and Hamas reached understandings about a policy of tahadiyeh, or lull, which in effect took Hamas out of the terror arena, at least until after the withdrawal from Gaza.

"The Israel Defense Forces and the Shin Bet security service gave the political echelon, on a silver platter, the possibility of ceasing the current round of violence for a significant period of time," says a senior officer in the general staff. But then-premier Ariel Sharon chose to ignore the change. Sharon stuck to the charm of his plan's unilateralism and rejected attempts to anchor it in any agreements with the Palestinian Authority. Abbas, who was elected chairman of the PA a month after Yasser Arafat passed away, still had reasonable stature then. Was it possible to turn the disengagement into the first step of a long-term interim arrangement? Sharon's circle refused to discuss this matter seriously. When Israel evacuated Gaza, it did not even receive the United Nations' stamp of approval for having retreated to an internationally recognized border, which Ehud Barak was careful to obtain when he withdrew from Lebanon in May 2000.

If Ehud Olmert's disengagement plan is executed, that missed opportunity could repeat itself. Israel is paying lip service to the idea of a withdrawal by agreement, but Olmert is playing with cards that are not as good as Sharon's. Abbas has been very much weakened and Hamas, his partner in government, is not a partner for negotiations with Israel. Thus this time, too, it will apparently be a unilateral move.

At the end of May, Olmert is slated to make an official visit to Washington. He will be received with all due ceremony. The Bush administration, after all, wanted Kadima's victory. The Americans will not get in the way of the convergence plan. Iraq and Iran are much higher priorities for them. Unofficially, the administration might put out feelers about the possibility of a withdrawal agreement with the Palestinians, on the assumption that any agreement could help Abbas continue in his job.

Few know today what is included in the convergence plan. At this stage, it appears to be mostly a collection of general ideas. However, if it is executed, it will be a complex national project. First, it will be enormously expensive, and without an agreement with the Palestinians, it is doubtful that Israel will get any American financing for it. Secondly, who will plan and execute it for Olmert? The combined experience of the triumvirate of Olmert-Amir Peretz-Tzipi Livni on diplomatic and security issues is fairly limited.

In light of the vacuum that has been created, an interesting idea has come up lately in defense circles: appointing Ehud Barak to chair the National Security Council. The Olmert-Barak relationship remains a good one, Barak is eager to return to the public stage, and the convergence plan matches some of the ideas that he was first to raise in the election campaign that he lost to Sharon in the beginning of 2001, after the Camp David summit collapsed and the intifada broke out. However, quite a few obstacles stand between Barak and this position. Peretz is apparently the greatest of those obstacles. Such an appointment would dwarf Peretz's stature and experience as defense minister. The question is whether Peretz would agree to swallow his pride this time around, for the sake of the diplomatic plan's success.