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Ariel Sharon had a ranch forum: a few friends and advisors of the prime minister who were his confidants. This group had no official standing, but its impact on the running of the country was considerable. There is reason to believe that ideas with far-reaching consequences, like disengagement or leaving the Likud, blossomed in Sharon's living room. Ehud Olmert accepted as obvious the presence of the forum in the decision-making process involving both matters of state and Kadima. It seems that the time has come to examine this routine.

From the outset, the involvement of the ranch forum in running the country was problematic because of its unofficial standing. But the custom became deeply entrenched without raising too much criticism because the system accepted Sharon's authority and his desire to consult with his friends. This routine was not entirely proper, since it added to official discussions an outside element that bore no responsibility for advice given or steps initiated, and had no authority to enforce them (with the exception of Dov Weissglas).

Previous prime ministers also had their unofficial advisors, but they were usually from their political circle (Levi Eshkol, Golda Meir) or their chief aides (Menachem Begin, Yitzhak Rabin). With Sharon, the institution of advisors attained a special status because of its make-up, internal character and great influence.

As things look now, the influence of Dov Weissglas, Omri Sharon, Reuven Adler and Eyal Arad on the decision-making process of the acting prime minister will go on, at least until the election. Three of the four advisors, however, were on Sharon's private team of consultants because of their personal connection to the prime minister. The fourth (Arad) was brought on board as result of the professional services he provided during the election campaign.

The question is, what do they have to do with Olmert?

This group is not his natural choice for intimate consultation. The mixture of officials with relatives and personal friends in discussions on matters of state of the highest import, which was grating during Sharon's time, is strange, not to say scandalous, in the period thereafter. Olmert probably would not turn to these particular people for advice in his private life; he has his own circle of friends whose opinion he values. So why would he turn matters of state over for a recommendation, not to say a decision, by a group that is not his first preference when it comes to personal matters?

Weissglas attained his lofty position due to his acquaintence with Sharon. Omri Sharon became a man of major influence because of his family ties. These two formalized their positions (Weissglas as Sharon's bureau chief and Omri Sharon as an MK) and thus legitimized the functions they fulfilled for Sharon. Adler remained the friend behind the scenes, and Arad was the professional whose advice was sought.

This structure has not been in force since Sharon fell ill. Even before this, Weissglas scaled down his position by two-thirds, and Omri Sharon retired, officially, from public life because of his conviction. And still, Weissglas had significant input in the formulation of the government's position with regard to Hamas' rise to power; Omri Sharon continues to pull the strings in Kadima; and Adler and Arad are ostensibly focusing on managing Olmert's election campaign. But in practice, the state decisions Olmert is required to make these days are influenced by election considerations and the recommendations of these advisors.

There is no need to wait until March 29 to stop this problematic routine. Olmert's aspiration - to protect Sharon's dignity and not to unsettle Kadima - is understandable. But the first test of his leadership is his ability to act independently and chose the advisors he wishes.