Text size

Four months from tomorrow in Washington a new president will be sworn in, John McCain or Barack Obama, but until January 20, 2009, George W. Bush will remain in the White House. Tzipi Livni must not neglect the relationship with him during a period liable to see a conflagration in Gaza, spreading to the north of the country, and on the eve of fateful decisions, possibly a confrontation with Iran. Livni must keep one eye on America while her other eye is on forming a government.

Retired general Israel Tal often mentions that the statesman's job is to prepare the background for a military victory even before the first shot is fired. An Israeli prime minister must develop a network of alliances - first and foremost with Washington - and create conditions to shorten the fighting and reduce casualties, both on the home front and battlefront.

Other military experts often debate - including this week at a seminar in Latrun - the balance between firepower and maneuvering in wars: When and to what extent to use (and therefore also to buy and build in advance) planes, missiles and shells for long-distance operations, or armored and infantry forces for confrontation and conquest. On the national level, the entire army is part of the firepower, whereas strategic maneuvering is the prime minister's job. Like prime minister Golda Meir in 1973, Livni will discover that her job requires coordinating diplomatic support, defense assistance, and perhaps an agreement with the U.S. president on a preventive strike or airlift. Without these tools, the Israel Defense Forces will not be able to do the job.

The fall of Shaul Mofaz and the defeat of Avi Dichter are encouraging. A former chief of staff and a former head of the Shin Bet security service, as well as generals and other senior defense officials, need a period of adaptation to civilian life, not only a "cooling-off" period. A military man who understands civilians is rarer than a civilian who understands defense matters.

The problem is not their expertise in exercising force, but that their authoritarian nature has become first nature for them - they see life as a hierarchy of commanders, subordinates and staff officers. Their attitude toward people is utilitarian rather than egalitarian: use and discard. One of the Armored Corps generals smilingly cites his battalion commander, who said: "Normally, the battalion's role is to serve the battalion commander, and in combat, to protect him."

The most important position to be filled in Livni's government will be the defense portfolio. It would be a serious mistake to succumb to pressure to offer the job to Mofaz to make him change his mind about taking a sectarian break from politics, in keeping with the tradition that began with Shimon Peres after his loss to Yitzhak Rabin. Peres was the first of a series of confrontational defense ministers, like Ezer Weizman with Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Mordechai with Benjamin Netanyahu, who clashed with their prime ministers, their party heads. Mofaz, especially with his pretensions of leading a camp consisting of half of Kadima, is liable to become Livni's Mordechai.

Ariel Sharon used to boast that he had participated in "all of Israel's wars," either in the army or government. In that sense, and we hope not only in that sense, Livni is his opposite: The war in Lebanon two years ago was her first. The previous ones she heard about at home and read about in books. She was born after the 1956 Sinai Campaign, was in elementary school during the 1967 Six-Day War and in high school during the 1973 Yom Kippur War. To learn the lessons of the past, Livni can be assisted by the memories of President Peres (who was already a veteran director general of the Defense Ministry when she was born) and Defense Minister Ehud Barak, as long as she takes into account that this memory is selective and utilitarian.

Barak, to enhance his role as the IDF's rehabilitator in the past year, exaggerates in describing the nadir of the Second Lebanon War and attributes fictitious effectiveness to the army in the first Lebanon war. One correct axiom is highlighted in his words: The government must do everything possible to prevent war, postpone it if it is unavoidable and win it when the time comes.

This rule helps him distinguish between his support for preventing nuclear armament by hostile Muslim countries and his opposition to initiating an attack against an enemy that is becoming stronger but is holding its fire (Hamas and Hezbollah). So far Livni has been closer in her views to Shin Bet head Yuval Diskin, who opposed the cease-fire with Gaza. The defense minister must also consider possible influences in other arenas. That is his advantage over the Shin Bet, which focuses on the Palestinian arena, but Barak is disadvantaged because he is not free of party and personal calculations.

Livni will now try to steer the government car with quarreling passengers alongside and behind her. It won't be easy, but losing is more difficult, and if she joins Bush's club she will be able to boast of the size of the gap between herself and Mofaz: Al Gore lost Florida and America to Bush by 327 votes.