Intelligence or Diplomacy?

Practically, it is convenient for the rulers in Israel, Egypt and Jordan to continue maintaining their communications through their intelligence and defense apparatus, and through personal aides in their bureaus, as long as those channels remain outside the foreign ministries.

The return to Israel of the Egyptian and Jordanian ambassadors - a first appointment has already been announced, under American pressure, but Cairo does not appear to be in any hurry - will be more symbolic than substantive when it occurs. Politically, their return is meant to signal to the Israeli public that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Jordan's King Abdullah II approve of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, whom they punished four years ago by pulling their ambassadors out of the country after an airborne assault on Gaza. Practically, it is convenient for the rulers in all three countries to continue maintaining their communications through their intelligence and defense apparatus, and through personal aides in their bureaus, as long as those channels remain outside the foreign ministries.

For the Mossad, headed by long-time Sharon associate Meir Dagan, it is convenient that the Israeli portfolio in Egypt is not in the hands of Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit, but rather in the hands of Egyptian Intelligence Minister Omar Suleiman. The competition between the Mossad and the Foreign Ministry over secret communications channels is not new. In the early 1990s, Israel made a spectacle of itself as senior Mossad and ministry officials competed to reach North Korea. Now the two institutions are fighting over ties with another Asian country - ties that were forged due to efforts by Israel's legation to the UN. Israeli agreement to carry out a dialogue through the Mossad weakens the incentive for that country to form formal relations and to open a diplomatic legation here.

Among other things, this insensitivity has resulted in a crisis in Defense Ministry relations with the Pentagon over Israel's ties with China. It's a crisis between ministries - not between administrations. The U.S. State Department and the National Security Council in the White House took no little pleasure in seeing the U.S. Department of Defense wriggle. In the Israeli Defense Ministry they identified the guilty party: not someone inside it, heaven forbid, and certainly not its crusty director general, Amos Yaron, but Taiwan's intelligence agency, trying to stir up trouble between Tel Aviv and Washington by feeding the Americans with misleading information about Israeli industries operating in China, upgrading weapons meant to kill Americans and Taiwanese.

Even if there is validity in Israel's arguments about Taiwan's claims not being truthful, the Defense Ministry's tendency to get into trouble in disputes with the Pentagon is very worrisome. Too often, senior officials in the ministry mumble something semi-decipherable into the ears of their colleagues and counterparts, and hurry to interpret silence as acquiescence, but then find it difficult to prove this as time passes (and new American officials take over). Crises created by generals would be avoidable if they learned, like every Foreign Ministry cadet, to draft a "non-paper" or document setting out points of discussion in advance, which is then given to their interlocutor, with a copy filed in case of a future dispute.

The Foreign Ministry's own officials and the ministers above them are also partially responsible for the ministry's low stock value. Just last night, the very important annual Munich Conference on Security Policy came to an end. Among the speakers were Germans, Arabs, Americans and Europeans, Donald Rumsfeld and his Russian counterpart Sergei Ivanov (who announced Russia will not sell Syria shoulder-launched missiles), NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer (who spoke of "a fresh approach" to the Atlantic alliance's readiness to contribute to advancing the peace between Israel and Palestine), and his counterpart from the European Union, Javier Solana (who said the EU must continue to be deeply engaged in Mideast affairs, as "our fates are tied together"), Egypt's Aboul Gheit (who opposed NATO intimacy with Middle Eastern countries in general and Israel in particular), and Iran's Deputy Foreign Minister for Legal and International Affairs Gholamali Khoshroo (who wondered why the world has a double standard regarding his country's nuclear program and Israel's).

Everyone was there, everyone except Israel, which made do with its efficient, well-connected ambassador to Berlin, Shimon Stein. Maybe Silvan Shalom preferred to stay away because he did not want to be a party-pooper and deliver a speech against quitting Gaza; but even so, he can't complain when foreign policy has been expropriated from him for the use of Sharon, Dagan, Yaron and Dov Weisglass.