Clouds of Dissent Between Olmert and Peretz

The Prime Minister's Office issued two different responses concerning the Israel Defense Forces operation in Ramallah last Thursday.

During the operation for the arrest of a Palestinian fugitive, four civilians were killed, and the incident cast a shadow over Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's visit to Egypt.

One reaction came from Miri Eisen, a government spokeswoman who deals with the foreign press, who told The New York Times that "she had never seen Olmert so angry," when he received the news of the operation that had gone awry. "The IDF has the authority to carry out such a raid, but the problem is not the authorization, but clear thinking. A military man did not think of the timing and the relevance," said Eisen, who formerly served as a senior IDF intelligence officer.

To the Israeli press, however, a much more subdued version of the reaction was issued - to the effect that there are no complaints, and the proof is that the prime minister did not demand a formal inquiry or explanations. Such operations are carried out every day and there is no need to announce them in advance to Olmert, who also did not instruct the IDF to avoid launching sensitive operations during his visit to Sharm el-Sheikh.

"From our point of view, it was bad luck that the operation became mixed up, nothing more," a source in the PM's office said.

A high-ranking officer in Central Command took responsibility yesterday for authorizing the operation, and Defense Minister Amir Peretz announced that he would formulate special regulations for augmenting political oversight in cases like this.

But even if Olmert does not have to authorize the arrest of a fugitive in the West Bank ahead of time, the incident has raised many questions regarding the degree of control of the political echelon vis-a-vis the IDF. Instead of being angry after the fact, Olmert could have informed the army in advance to avoid any risky operations on the day he was scheduled to meet President Hosni Mubarak. This would have saved him a great deal of embarrassment.

These past weeks, the so-called political echelon has been caught in the dark cloud of disagreement that exists between the prime minister and the defense minister. The two have participated in meetings with others on a number of occasions, but they did not talk to each other very much. It is hard to point to specific decisions that were not taken as a result of this falling out; the main problem is the mistrust and mutual loathing. Olmert thinks that Peretz is busy with media spins, and that every conversation they share is leaked to the press. Peretz knows that the prime minister would be glad to see someone else in his place at the Defense Ministry - Ehud Barak, for example. But there is a huge gap between Olmert's complaints and the firing of the defense minister.

Faced with the dilemma of either maintaining a properly functioning, political-security leadership or retaining political stability, Olmert is opting to keep the head of a rival party in place, thus avoiding a step that may dismantle the coalition and undermine his position in power.

The interim report of the Winograd Commission that is investigating the Lebanon war is due soon, and Olmert and Peretz know they must depend on each other.