Independent as an Indian Reservation

Israeli independence appears to be like that of an Indian reservation: It has a certain freedom to run its own affairs, up to the border of the reservation.

In his relations with the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon always had the last word - three words, in fact: Yes, Mr. President. The Americans, who remembered defense minister Sharon's quarrels from the period of the Lebanon War, were surprised during these last four years to find an obedient and easy prime minister; a former U.S. ambassador to Tel Aviv said recently that from the time of president Ronald Reagan until now, he couldn't recall an Israeli prime minister who wielded so little influence in the White House. Apart from one verbal outburst ("the Czechoslovakia speech" at the beginning of his term) and one continuing issue (the outposts), Sharon's foreign policy is Bush's request.

Israeli independence appears to be like that of an Indian reservation: It has a certain freedom to run its own affairs, up to the border of the reservation. Those who forget their appropriate place earn a painful, fatherly reminder, like when someone unwittingly steps on his dog after it has quietly curled up at his feet.

Last week marked another milestone on this trajectory. An American dictate, stronger even than the Defense Ministry workers' committee, imposed a change in the structure of the defense establishment and its modes of action: Brigadier General (res.) Uzi Elam, who was appointed in order to soothe the wrath of the Pentagon over the sale of air-to-ground missiles to China, submitted his proposal to establish a department to supervise defense exports. The department, headed by a ministry official, will be obligated to work with the Foreign Affairs Ministry and the Industry and Trade Ministry in order to cool the export enthusiasm that dazzled any diplomatic judgment.

This new department will mainly serve to separate the supervision of arms and weapons sales from the departments that measure success based on the encouragement of such sales, the military aid department (Sibit) and the department of the security supervisor (Malmab, which is also responsible for certain external relations). It will not offer a solution to the problem of the fees and the gratuities, which threatens to corrupt the defense establishment: For some reason, people who have gone abroad to give foreigners envelopes of cash, unlike intelligence-gathering Mossad officers returning from similar trips, do not undergo polygraph tests - for exposure and deterrence - to find out whether they have been tempted to share the booty.

Elam, formerly chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission and head of the Defense Ministry delegation to France, is a graduate of a similar process of separation of roles in the Defense Ministry, in different circumstances. In 1991, as a lesson learned from the meager readiness for the Iraqi missile attack, the department of research, development and organization of technological infrastructures (Mapat) that Elam headed, relinquished some of its duties to a new department for special means (Amam). This was an independent decision by Israel, at the initiative of Moshe Arens, a defense minister who combined conservative policy with organizational innovativeness.

But more than the system has been changed by the Israeli defense ministers, it has been influenced by the American defense secretaries. The most obvious precedent of all to the creation of the department of supervision of defense exports is the cancellation of the Defense Ministry bureau of scientific relations (Lakam), following its incrimination in operating Jonathan Pollard. In this defense minister Yitzhak Rabin sacrificed, under a directive from his colleague Caspar Weinberger, not only a senior official (Rafi Eitan) and an officer who was getting close to landing in the bureau of the commander of the air force (Aviam Sela), but also an entire unit.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who unlike Weinberger exudes friendliness toward Israel, has ignored official lobbying and pleas from personal friends, among them former Foreign Ministry director general Yossi Ciechanover, and supported his aides' demand to get rid of Defense Ministry director general Amos Yaron. With the departure of Yaron - who, until the end of the year continues to enjoy the services of his previous office - the Pentagon let up on its pressures on the head of the defense delegation in New York, Kuti Mor, who was brought in from the cold for the talks between Rumsfeld and Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz. At the Defense Ministry they are still trying to figure out what to do about the other card in the wanted-by-the-Pentagon deck, Yehiel Horev, the deputy director general and the head of the Malmab. Horev is refusing to go and Mofaz, whose power is waning as his prestige is fading, is too weak to confront him.