Hanging in the Balance

Both in the cabinet and the Prime Minister's Office, there are a number of people anxiously waiting for the legal authorities investigating them to finish their work and sum up their findings.

Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman is awaiting Yehuda Weinstein's return from a business trip to Washington, when the attorney general is expected to deliver his final decision about filing an indictment against him.

Meanwhile, Defense Minister Ehud Barak is hoping to receive a gift in advance of his 70th birthday, on February 12: a sharp report from the state comptroller that blames former Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi for complicity in the affair of Boaz Harpaz, who is suspected of forging the so-called Galant document. The document purported to describe a PR campaign that would help Maj. Gen. Yoav Galant succeed Ashkenazi as chief of staff. Regardless of what Ashkenazi knew about this, the single hard fact glinting through the fog surrounding the report is the determination by the police that Harpaz alone - and no one else - was responsible for creating the document.

Eshel - Salman - 2.2012
Emil Salman

And for his part, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who will soon be marking the third anniversary of his government taking office, is also mired in troubles. These include the anticipated comptroller's report on the disastrous Carmel fire, and the affair of his bureau chief Natan Eshel, who is suspected of having harassed a female coworker.

Usually, it is within the prime minister's power to set the national agenda. Nowadays, however, Netanyahu has two competitors: State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss and Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein. Lindenstrauss, in a canny move, has decided to raise the thorny question of the responsibility of government ministers and that of the prime minister above them. Weinstein, both with respect to the Lieberman decision and in dealing with the Eshel affair, is putting a damper on the atmosphere in the government - and maybe also on the supply of air in its lungs.

In considering the Carmel fire debacle, the state comptroller has wisely separated his discussion of the elected political echelon from that concerning the professional echelon - i.e., the police commanders, the Israel Prison Service and the firefighters. Lindenstrauss has caught the ministers by the horns: If they are not responsible for the ongoing situation of blunders and neglect, then who is? And what in fact is the actual significance of that elusive responsibility? The comptroller is aiming to judge the commanders according to their performance on December 2, 2010, the day of the fire, and is doing this with a controversial measure of success.

Lindenstrauss - Mizrahi - 2.2012
Lior Mizrahi / BauBau

A firefighting officer from the north who is attending a conference in the center of the country, hears that a fire is raging in his district and prefers to wait until the luncheon is over - such a person will have a hard time finding a good explanation for his actions. As will the IPS people who did not bother to provide their cadets' bus with a beeper of the sort that was used for communications between the administrators of the Damun Prison and other prison service personnel. But the comptroller's people, who have concentrated on the doctrine, and focused on the advance command group and standing orders, might do an injustice to those who were in charge of dealing with the fire. In the fog of war the latter may have made errors of judgment and it would be unfair to label this as a "command failure" per se.

In terms of the larger picture, Lindenstrauss has already backed Netanyahu and his ministers into a defensive position in his investigation of the blaze: Specifically, Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz and Interior Minister Eli Yishai are likely to have a hard time coming up with a narrative that will effectively counter the comptroller's, because the story of the unnecessary deaths of 44 IPS personnel, police and firefighters is more an emotional issue than a rational one, for the families and the public in general. And both of the latter can be expected to apply pressure to Netanyahu.

On the list of possible casualties of the Carmel report, Barak ranks lower than Yishai, Steinitz, Netanyahu and Public Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch.

Weinstein - Mizrahi - 2.2012
Lior Mizrahi / BauBau

Problems with the team

Anyone who is looking on in amazement at the Barak- Netanyahu partnership will find it hard to believe that once upon a time, in 1999, there was an incumbent prime minister named Benjamin Netanyahu, whose chief opponent Ehud Barak preached that his late brother, Yoni Netanyahu, would be ashamed of him - and also aimed to topple and replace him. And now the Netanyahu of 2012 is failing even more than his predecessor.

A gloomy and frustrated associate of Netanyahu's, one who wishes him well, sighed this week and defined what he is seeing now as sort of deja vu: As in 1999, the makeup of Netanyahu's team in the PMO today reflects his weaknesses as a man and a manager, although the current version is less problematic than the original. In 1999 the director general of the Prime Minister's Office, the premier's bureau chief and the cabinet secretary were all talented enough to become ministers (Lieberman, Ruhama Avraham and Danny Naveh ). This time, in the only decision he was able to make freely, without any political pressures, Netanyahu opted for political hacks like Eshel and his colleagues, none of whom had any serious experience at the national level.

In the first term, in an affair that took place only after his loss to Barak and when he had supposedly retired from politics, Netanyahu and his wife became embroiled in the scandal of "the mover and the gifts." The police recommended indicting them, Jerusalem District Attorney Moshe Lador (now state prosecutor ) had doubts as to whether the evidence would suffice for a conviction, and Attorney General Elyakim Rubinstein (now Supreme Court justice ) made do with words of reprimand ("caprice," "ugly" ), before closing the case.

Among the PMO officials involved in the affair was Ezra Seidoff, director of maintenance at the premier's residence. Seidoff, who is still there, was delegated recently with handing in Eshel's mobile phone for upgrading, during the course of which the thought-provoking - and possibly provocative in other ways - photos were produced that shattered the false serenity in Netanyahu's bureau.

The pictures did not speak for themselves. They needed three complainants. The context and the power of the photos are still open to interpretation. Even if it becomes clear that R., the female worker at the bureau, is Little Red Riding Hood, this would not suffice to determine whether Eshel is the Big Bad Wolf or the Hunter. If he was excessive in keeping watch over her, his ostensibly positive intention is liable to be thought of as negative behavior. The incomplete report by the three top people at the PMO has put Attorney General Weinstein in a pickle. A police investigation would lead to electronic eavesdropping at the PMO and to a raid on computers and documents. The blot Netanyahu has papered over with the help of the public's forgetfulness would stain him again, rightly or wrongly, and this would come at a time when the Jerusalem district attorney's office is still examining whether there are criminal aspects in the materials it received in the matter of the funding of trips by Mr. and Mrs. Netanyahu.

At the Justice Ministry this week, they explained that at first the story of Natan Eshel and employee R. looked like a disciplinary issue only, and therefore only State Prosecutor Lador and Deputy State Prosecutor for Special Assignments Shai Nitzan were called in for consultations with Weinstein. Neither Deputy State Prosecutor for Criminal Affairs Yehoshua Lemberger nor Police Investigations and Intelligence Division head Maj. Gen. Yoav Segalovich was called in (though Lemberger was brought in later ). However, if there was no suspicion of a criminal act, what is the explanation for the presence in the ministry of Ran Nizri, Weinstein's deputy for criminal affairs?

Keeping Segalovich, who headed the team that investigated former President Moshe Katsav, out of the picture could mean that the case will ultimately get to him, albeit belatedly, if the civil service commissioner's investigators reach a dead end without the testimony of R.

The feeling that there have been slip-ups in Netanyahu's office, together with the questions Lindenstrauss is directing at the prime minister and his ministers about the Carmel disaster (and soon the Marmara flotilla) - all this will accompany the premier's efforts to persuade the public that his functioning makes him deserving of another term on top.