The Ethics of the Politician's Right-hand Man

Every public figure in a senior position needs a close assistant, whose function is to be that official's long arm or big mouth.

uzi benziman
Uzi Benziman
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uzi benziman
Uzi Benziman

Six years ago, journalist Raviv Drucker published the book "Harakiri" that purported to give an unvarnished view of Ehud Barak's conduct during his tenure as prime minister. It was a terrible book, with no orderly structure or profound insights, but it had one positive quality: It contained piquant inside information about Barak's work environment. That virtue made the book a best-seller, offering readers an opportunity to take a peek at the inner workings of the Prime Minister's Bureau.

The information spilled all over the pages of "Harakiri" carried a whiff of tattling. Reading it gave the impression that someone in the intimate group around Barak had decided to settle scores with him, to harm him by airing his secrets. Barak deserved that punishment, since as prime minister he showed himself to be lousy at picking aides, matching ministers to posts and conducting interpersonal relations.

Something of the mood and moral compass that made the publication of "Harakiri" possible was reflected in recent days by the conduct of Tal Silberstein, who boasts the title of strategic adviser to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. Silberstein was also Barak's adviser, and managed his campaign for prime minister in 1999. He is a consultant to all comers by definition of his craft: hiring out his services to politicians in Israel and the world.

Although only 38, Silberstein has already managed to give himself the image of a mover and shaker whose connections and enterprise are of global reach. The tone the press uses to describe Silberstein indicates that he has a good relationship with the political correspondents, and they are fond of him. Wikipedia has a Hebrew entry devoted to him that is more favorable and detailed than those on many other public figures.

On May 28, Silberstein said in an interview on Army Radio: "Ehud Barak is the last person who should talk about envelopes containing cash." This was followed by threatening hints in the newspapers that Barak's day of reckoning is approaching because Silberstein was about to open his mouth.

The strategic adviser was enraged by Barak's political maneuver that compelled Olmert to agree to schedule primaries in Kadima. Silberstein thought his statement was helping his current client, Olmert, who is being investigated over the nature of the dollar-stuffed envelopes he allegedly received from American businessman Morris Talansky. Silberstein's implication is that Barak himself is tainted by unlawful conduct during his election campaign, and therefore is not in any position ethically to make demands on Olmert.

But what about Silberstein's own ethics? He had previously been questioned by the police about the funding of Barak's election campaign, and remained silent. Other major players in Barak's campaign headquarters likewise kept mum - a tactic that ultimately led the State Prosecutor's Office to close the cases. During the Barak investigation, silence also engulfed Shmuel Levy - who showed up Monday at the offices of the National Fraud Unit to tell police about the allegedly criminal behavior he ascribes to Barak.

This is an underworld culture, in which field activists or professional aides are hanging on to allegedly incriminating information in order to blackmail the politician who retained their services. They deliver the blow at a time of their choosing - whether to serve their new master (as Silberstein is doing), or in connection with financial claims they are making (as in Levy's case).

Advisers or personal aides to the prime minister, or other ministers, occupy positions of trust. The necessary condition for carrying out their duties is the politicians' ability to rely on them. Silberstein proves that he does not meet that expectation. He gives the impression that tomorrow, when he considers the circumstances to be justified, he might reveal secrets from Olmert's office.

Every public figure in a senior position needs a close assistant, whose function is to be that official's long arm or big mouth. Yitzhak Navon did that for David Ben-Gurion, Adi Yafeh for Levi Eshkol, Yehiel Kadishai for Menachem Begin, and Eitan Haber for Yitzhak Rabin.

Silberstein represents the mutation process this delicate role has undergone: It is no longer filled by background figures waiting in the wings to serve the boss, but by aggressive publicists who push their way to the front of the stage and dictate the agenda to their employers.