In an annual ritual, the cabinet convened this week to hear the "intelligence assessment" for 2007 from the director of Military Intelligence and chief of the Mossad espionage agency. The surveys, as always, were long and exhaustive. The ministers could have read the main points the day before in the daily paper. One minister, Eitan Cabel, a paratrooper in the reserves who is now doing reserve duty in the territories, noted quietly that he had learned a lot more from the intelligence survey he heard from the battalion's intelligence officer on the day he started his reserve service.
At the end of the surveys in the cabinet, Cabel asked for the floor. "I don't want to offend any of the leaders of the intelligence community," he said, "but what we heard here reminds me of the haze outside. Everyone makes an effort to prove that he is the best. But there is no bottom line. What are we supposed to do with what we heard? What will remain after the haze settles?"
Other ministers spoke their piece, and then Prime Minister Ehud Olmert launched into his summation speech, which was more instructive than all the surveys. What the ministers heard from him was in effect his response to the allegation that the Lebanon war last summer was engendered rashly and hastily, and without proper judgment. In essence, they heard from him what the Winograd Committee, which is investigating the war, heard a few weeks ago in tremendous detail, accompanied by documents and minutes of meetings.
The following are the main points of what Olmert said on Sunday: Without offending of my predecessors, I want to say that from the day I took over as prime minister, on January 4, 2006, until July 12, the day the war broke out, I held more situation assessments on the subject of southern Lebanon than were held in the six years since the [army's] withdrawal. Those discussions dealt mainly with one subject, Olmert emphasized: how Israel should respond to an act of abduction in the north.
Olmert related that after the failed abduction attempt in the village of Rajar, in November 2005, Ariel Sharon, who was then prime minister, ordered the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) to prepare a "bank of targets" in Lebanon, and since then the IDF had begun to train for an offensive in Lebanon. Concurrently, all the intelligence bodies started to consider different scenarios based on the abduction of a soldier in the north and subsequent escalation.
Immediately after the government's establishment, Olmert said, on May 10, 2006, he held a strategic discussion, which discussed at length a possible abduction and the Israeli reaction. In that discussion it was noted that Israel's final goal had to be the expulsion of Hezbollah from southern Lebanon and the deployment of the Lebanese army in its place.
Following the abduction of Gilad Shalit to the Gaza Strip, Olmert convened another meeting, in which he asked the defense establishment if it was ready to deal with a similar event in the north. Turning to Cabel, Olmert said that all the questions he referred to Northern Command before July 12 stemmed from the intelligence assessments he had received. His message was clear: I behaved properly, systematically. I did not improvise and I did not ignore the assessments of the intelligence community. I asked all the right questions at the right time and in the right place, and everything that needed to be asked.
Was the prime minister convincing? "Definitely," one minister replied, "but I'm not saying I was convinced."
"When a team of mountain climbers is making for the top of the Everest and one of the climbers finds himself in distress, you cut the rope and leave him behind, so that he will not drag everyone into the abyss," MK Yitzhak Aharonovitch, from Yisrael Beiteinu, told his party's leader, Avigdor Lieberman, on Wednesday afternoon, a few hours before the easily foretold conclusion of the Esterina Tartman episode. "It's not a matter of love, of friendship. The fate of the party is at stake!" Other members of the party's Knesset faction made similar comments to Lieberman, though not so graphically.
The moral was clear: Lieberman had to cut. Esterina had to be left alone , otherwise the whole of Yisrael Beiteinu, a party for which great things have been predicted, would go down in her wake. When Aharonovitch spoke to Lieberman, he didn't know that in short order he would be on his way to the Tourism Ministry. Lieberman did know, but kept mum. With his bear-like gentlemanly posture, he was determined to conduct the ceremony as tradition prescribes: first to stand behind Esterina in public, and then to let her hang herself (metaphorically, of course) on the gallows he had prepared for her.
Tartman played her part in the tragicomedy that was scripted for her: prime time, live on all channels, she put on her show, a pale imitation of the performance by President Katsav. The viewer at home might well have found it difficult to choose whom to pity more: the minister who wouldn't be, or Lieberman, whose perspiring body language broadcast anxiety and extreme disgust at the situation he was forced into. For the first time his unchallenged leadership had been frayed. He failed by making an unsuitable appointment, encountered signs of internal revolt for the first time and exposed the undemocratic system in his faction. (Tw o days earlier he had said proudly that Tartman's appointment had been decided "unanimously," meaning by his unanimous vote. That comment now boomeranged on him.) Henceforth, the strategic threats that the minister for strategic affairs will have to repulse will be domestic ones. But the billionaire Arcadi Gaydamak undoubtedly opened a bottle of Dom Perignon.
In Yisrael Beiteinu, Aharonovitch is one of a pair. His name will always be uttered together with that of Yisrael Hasson: the former is a former deputy police commissioner, the latter a former deputy head of the Shin Bet security service. When the news that they were joining Yisrael Beiteinu broke, on the eve of the elections, it was a sensation. They were going to bring the native-born votes of centrist, moderate Israelis. Hasson was given the number-three slot on the Knesset list, following Yuri Stern, who has since died; Aharonovitch was assigned the eighth slot. The others are banal functionaries and unknown to the broad public, though well-known to the Russian-speaking community.
If they hadn't met Lieberman before the elections, they got to know him and his style after entering the Knesset. Hasson, who dared to doubt the wisdom of the party joining the Olmert government, was immediately targeted by Lieberman. Despite his high place on the list, Lieberman skipped over him. Hasson will be able to watch the sessions of the next Knesset on television. There are no second chances in Yisrael Beiteinu.
Aharonovitch says that, contrary to the impression that was created, Lieberman is in fact a democrat. "I express my opinion. He likes to hear my opinion and he consults with us. He is very humane. I was favorably surprised by him." But he is outraged when he is labeled as one of the dwarfs that surround Lieberman. "I'm a big boy. I have sprouted wings. I do not coordinate with him. When the Esterina thing started, we were told not to speak out. I spoke out."
He doesn't understand why such a big deal is made of the fact that Lieberman decides on the appointments. "Is it different in other parties? Didn't Olmert appoint ministers as he saw fit, and Rabbi Ovadia, too?"
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