Dousing the Flames

Barak and Ashkenazi are at loggerheads, Netanyahu was out of the loop, and Livni is busy courting her own ex-IDF chief of staff.

If there is one image that encapsulates the craziness of this week, it is a photograph from Shimon Peres' 87th birthday party at Tel Aviv's Cameri Theater, published in Haaretz on Tuesday. At the left end of the front row are Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi and his wife, Ronit, and then, 17 seats away, Defense Minister Ehud Barak and his wife, Nili Priell.

The organizers in the president's bureau took no unnecessary chances, and even sat opposition leader Tzipi Livni and her "Naftul" (her husband, Naftali Spitzer ) as a buffer zone between the Baraks and the Ashkenazis.

The kitschy, glamorous party to mark Peres' birthday (he knew nothing about it, of course - the "girls" at the office told him to come to the Cameri and he did as he was told ) was intended to bring people together on the president's big day. He is very fond of these productions. In practice, the event became a visual illustration of the disease debilitating the top ranks of the defense establishment.

On Tuesday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was on the veranda of a luxury hotel on the Greek island of Poros, together with Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou and the Greek defense minister and chief of staff. They were discussing cooperation between the two countries when a fire suddenly broke out on the hill opposite them. Netanyahu related afterward that he was the first to spot the fire. In the following two hours, he, his hosts and their wives watched a very impressive demonstration by sophisticated firefighting helicopters, which Greece has in abundance and Israel doesn't have at all. The helicopters drew water from the sea and dropped it on the flashpoints.

Amos Biderman

That was precisely when the conflagration involving Ashkenazi and the Galant document flared up in Israel. Netanyahu didn't have a clue about it. Only when he sailed back to Piraeus was he given the news from Israel. And only when he got to his office on Wednesday morning did he discover that the media was asking where the prime minister was in all this.

Netanyahu convened his aides for a lengthy meeting about how to respond. Should he hold a press conference? Summon Barak and Ashkenazi for a trilateral summit and demand they show responsibility and maturity? In the meantime, his people had to rebuff reports - tendentious and incorrect - that he himself had heard about the document from Ashkenazi ages ago but had done nothing. Netanyahu's staff was able to trace that rumor to a particular, and important, office within the Israel Defense Forces.

After the internal consultations, Netanyahu met privately with Barak for about an hour and a half. Barak likely told him exactly what he has been saying to everyone else over the past two weeks: that he had no idea the document existed and certainly had not acted based on it.

Meanwhile, the premier's staff prepared the press for the leadership move to come. In the end, after delays and after the newscasts on the commercial channels, Netanyahu issued a brief, 20-word statement (in Hebrew ) in which he called on officers to stop addressing the investigation and on the top military officials to work together for the sake of the country.

Another prime minister might have invited himself to the General Staff forum and delivered a speech, which would then have made its way into the media. But with Barak as defense minister, who would allow Netanyahu to enter the gates of General Staff headquarters?

The new jokers

Last Friday, Haaretz's Or Kashti reported that former air force commander and retired chief of staff Dan Halutz had raised about NIS 400,000 to finance a run in the Kadima party primaries. Two days later, Yuval Karni reported in Yedioth Ahronoth that Livni is also trying to get another former air force commander, Eliezer Shkedy, now the CEO of El Al, to join Kadima.

Halutz is definitely on the way to Kadima. As for Shkedy, he and Livni have met a few times for conversations. But not every meeting she holds is an invitation to join the party, Livni's aides say. Until not long ago, after all, the two men were privy to the most sensitive security secrets. Shkedy's side also denied the report. Political sources not from Kadima say that in contrast to his predecessors at El Al, Shkedy is engaged extensively in public activity in Israel and abroad and that, also in contrast to his predecessors, he is being very open about it. Some see this as preparation for an entry into politics.

It's not logical for both Halutz and Shkedy to run in Kadima's next primary election. Halutz can be expected to run, and Prof. Uriel Reichman, the head of the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, probably will too. Livni is also talking with many other people. She wants to revamp her party's top leadership ahead of the next elections. She understands that in order to create an alternative to Likud in 2012 - or in 2013 - she needs new faces. Roni Bar-On, Dalia Itzik, Meir Sheetrit, Shaul Mofaz, Avi Dichter - they're all experienced, but they are all considered veterans. Other top people have left: one went to the President's Residence, another went to prison, a third is spending his time in police investigation rooms. Tzachi Hanegbi will probably continue to spend his time in court, if the state appeals his acquittal in the case of the political appointments.

In the past two elections there was a last-minute parade of "stars" into the parties that were expected to take power. In 2005, the talents streamed into Labor and Kadima. In 2009 the new and old stars went for Likud.

This time, too, "freshness" and "anti-establishment" will play a central role in the elections. Journalist Yair Lapid might lead a new party branding itself as the antithesis of the old and corrupt. A new left-wing party might also be established. Livni believes that adding new names to Kadima is the way to ensure that the party will keep its seats.

But all of this is happening too soon. Livni's party has 28 MKs. Some of them are good at arithmetic and realize Kadima doesn't have much room for expansion. Every new joker who finds his way into the pack, they know, is liable to push out an old card.

Raging male hormones

Livni's courting of Halutz, who was chief of staff during the Second Lebanon War, is motivated in part by the trouble she is having with one of his predecessors, Shaul Mofaz. Mofaz is threatening to run against her for the party leadership. This is the time to recall an interview she gave in December 2006, a few months after the war, to Ari Shavit for Haaretz Magazine.

Were there moments when you looked around and saw belligerence? Shavit asked her regarding the discussions of the top ranks of the political-security echelon in the war.

"Yes, yes," she replied.

Was there an excess of enthusiasm at the beginning of the war?

"Yes. About everything. It was a real heartache ... Part of the leadership and certainly the army had a feeling that the issue was the military campaign itself."

Did you see male hormones raging around you?

"Sometimes there are guy issues."

Was there a guy problem in the conduct of the war?

"Not only in the war. In all kinds of discussions, I hear arguments between generals and admirals and such, and I say, guys, stop it."

Starting the revolution

Now, when IDF generals, the chief of staff and the defense minister are not talking to one another, it's encouraging to see two ministers, and even from the same party, who are capable of cooperating for the sake of a positive goal. The joint ministerial terms of Education Minister Gideon Sa'ar and Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz kicked off with a big fight over the education budget. Sa'ar won. The two may one day compete for the leadership of Likud.

So, like in the political legends, they found themselves a common enemy: Defense Minister Ehud Barak and his ministry's budget. In the debate over the last budget, they led a successful campaign against increasing the defense budget.

A behind-the-scenes alliance between them this week engendered one of the most striking achievements of the Netanyahu government: a six-year reform in higher education, including a NIS 7 billion infusion for the wilting institutions being drained of their brains. Thus, 40 percent of the money slashed from the defense budget will go to higher education. That's the beginning of what a normal country looks like.

Sa'ar was able to accomplish what his predecessors weren't: to inject a little hope into an establishment crucial to Israel. He could not have done it without Steinitz's cooperation. This week we were also reminded that in the 2009 election campaign, Netanyahu promised an education revolution.