Netanyahu Aide Likely to Pay Price for 'Secret' Russia Trip

Sacrificing the PM's military secretary is expected to put an end to the rumor mill surrounding the visit.

At least one person will pay the price for the fiasco of the prime minister's visit to Russia: Maj. Gen. Meir Kalifi, Benjamin Netanyahu's military secretary. It isn't that Kalifi is free of blame in this story, but it seems that the speed with which he was identified as the near sole person responsible for the embarrassment was meant to spare others responsible, including Netanyahu, his political adviser, Uzi Arad, and his media adviser, Nir Hefetz, from any blame.

Sacrificing the military secretary, who lacks political support or any personal commitment from Netanyahu (having been appointed to the post during the tenure of Ehud Olmert), is not particularly media savvy and whose military career is in any case close to its end, is expected to put an end to the rumor mill surrounding the sensitive nature of the visit, and the failed effort to keep it a secret.

No less important, it may temporarily contain the infighting at the Prime Minister's Bureau, among those who are battling for Netanyahu's graces: Arad vs. Hefetz, and government secretary Zvi Hauser.

Thursday there were already rumors that Kalifi had prepared a letter of resignation. The officer, responding to Haaretz, denied the rumor. But there is no doubt that he is furious at the way he has been treated.

The story had already appeared in the press Thursday: Netanyahu and Arad kept Hefetz in the dark on the planned visit. The Prime Minister's disappearance on Monday stirred a wave of rumors and reporters called on Netanyahu's media adviser, who admitted he did not know. Later, Hefetz issued a false announcement, which was, unusually, made under Kalifi's name, claiming that Netanyahu was in a security related facility.

It was reported that Hefetz at that time still had no idea where Netanyahu was. Kalifi was also not in Russia.

The newspapers wrote Thursday that Kalifi was behind the announcement, and that he knew where Netanyahu was. He was quoted as having said that "for state security one may sometimes not tell the whole truth." At the same time someone recommended to the reporters to turn to the IDF, and ask the chief of staff whether he planned to reprimand Kalifi (the answer, as far as we know, is negative).

Those who spoke with Kalifi Thursday heard a different version of events than the one published in the media. Accordingly, he did not know that the false statement on Netanyahu's whereabouts was being issued under his name to the media. Only in retrospect did the military secretary comprehend the trap that had been set for him and its implications: the whole affair was blamed on him and he was made to appear to be a liar.

Kalifi's future in the IDF had been limited in any case. The chief of staff had skipped him over when he made the appointments for commander of ground forces and GOC Central Command.

Under the current circumstances and the stain that has been smeared on him it is hard to imagine Kalifi surviving much longer at the Prime Minister's Bureau.

Kalifi is the man whom the IDF sent to the front, during two sad incidents in the Gaza Strip: the death of seven members of the Ghalia family in 2006 from a blast on the Gaza beach, and the killing of 18 Palestinians by IDF artillery in Beit Hanoun. He is the man who investigated the incidents, and presented the conclusions to the media.

In both cases the IDF came out with minor damage. His willingness to deceive in the name of security this week has shed some doubt also on his statements in the past.

Missile crisis

One of the main issues that, according to reports, was apparently on Netanyahu's agenda in Russia was the S-300 air defense missile deal with Iran. Initial reports on Moscow's intention to deliver the advanced missiles to Iran were published seven years ago.

Since then, the deal has been placed on hold: it seems that the Russians promised to sell the equipment to Iran, but did not say when. Israel would very much like to see the deal stopped, or at least delayed, because the delivery of this system would substantially improve Iran's ability to defend its nuclear installations against an air strike. It is for this reason that Israel agreed to Russia's request that it cease to sell weapons to Georgia.

However, the Russian position is not unequivocal, and Moscow has not stopped from hinting that it intends to go through with the deal.

One of the Russian claims is that selling advanced air defense systems to countries like Iran and Syria actually contributes to stability in the Middle East because it dissuades Israel from any offensive adventurism. Russia and Iran continue to have clandestine exchanges in matters that give Israel cause to suspect that Moscow is playing both sides.

Another option is that Moscow considers the possibility of selling advanced air defense systems to Iran as a way of bargaining with the West over U.S. plans to deploy an anti-missile system in Poland and the Czech Republic.