A Not Very Chivalrous Rivalry

It has become something of a routine: Every time some defense-related issue makes the daily agenda, the rivalry between Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Defense Minister Amir Peretz resurfaces. In recent weeks, every time Peretz made a decision or took some initiative, he encountered a hostile response from the Prime Minister's Office, questioning his authority.

The latest example of the confrontation at the top was a letter Peretz sent to Olmert on Wednesday (whose content was published by Haaretz yesterday), in which the defense minister called on the prime minister to order the immediate cessation of the archaeological work nearby the Mugrabi Gate, in close proximity to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem.

Olmert was insulted by the letter, and yesterday decided to continue the work at the contentious site. The letter, and Olmert's response, reflect the low point in the relations between the two and show the real damage that has been done to the country's political and defense systems.

Peretz's decision to send the letter was made on Tuesday, following internal deliberations at the Defense Ministry. It is doubtful whether he had given any sort of attention to the construction work near the Temple Mount.

The unfolding of events is troubling: If Peretz is protesting after the fact, this suggests that he was not in on the decision. Formally speaking, possible disturbances in Jerusalem are not part of the defense minister's responsibility. This job falls to the public security minister. But in practice, it is obvious that every incident in Jerusalem could have serious implications on the Palestinian territories and could lead to an escalation along the country's borders.

Pushing Peretz out of the decision-making group, whether purposefully, because of his relations with Olmert, or by chance, suggests poor planning. This is a lesson that was supposed to have been learned following the opening of the Western Wall tunnel in 1996 (a conflagration to which Olmert also contributed in his position as then-mayor of Jerusalem). In sending the letter, Peretz is buying himself a guarantee of sorts. If there is a deterioration in the situation in Jerusalem, and the issue will become the subject of some kind of investigation in the future, the defense minister will be able to prove that he did his job.

The letter incident was preceded by several other clashes. Earlier in the week, Olmert rejected a Peretz proposal to evacuate a number of outposts in the West Bank. When Dan Halutz resigned as chief of staff, Olmert hid the news from Peretz. When Peretz decided to appoint Gabi Ashkenazi to replace Halutz, Olmert began a series of consultations on possible candidates with every relevant person there was. In the end he approved Peretz's choice but the message was clear: I do not trust the decision-making of the defense minister, and I will go on making decisions independently.

In Olmert's camp Peretz is made out to be a publicity hound, whose decisions are solely motivated by the upcoming Labor Party primaries. In Peretz's camp they say that Olmert is "trying to be a defense minister" superseding Peretz.