Olmert Goes to War Again

After Lebanon, the prime minister has found the time to determine his next target: the judicial system.

The first time that Daniel Friedmann's name was mentioned as a candidate for the post of justice minister was last Thursday evening, in the Prime Minister's Residence. It was just one day after the conviction of the former justice minister, Haim Ramon, for sexual misconduct. Olmert convened his forum of advisers: those in his bureau - Yoram Turbowicz, Yisrael Maimon, Oved Yehezkel, Raanan Dinur and Yaakov Galanti - and the external ones, Uri Shani and Tal Zilberstein.

At first they considered whether to appoint a politician or someone from outside, a star. Most of those present favored an external candidate. "You need new blood," they told Olmert. That spelled the end of the candidacy of Roni Bar-On, the interior minister and loyal trooper, who coveted the post. The man who once served as attorney general for 48 hours can now add to his resume that he was a candidate to become justice minister for a full 96 hours.

"Give me names," Olmert demanded of the advisers. And the names began to be bandied about: Boaz Okon, Uriel Reichman, Nili Cohen, Daniel Friedmann, Amnon Rubinstein. According to one account, Turbowicz himself was also mentioned as a possible candidate. Most of the advisers backed Friedmann, others supported Rubinstein.

These were the two leading candidates from the outset: two meta-jurists, esteemed and distinguished, itching to shake up the system and critical of the decision to put Ramon on trial. Olmert was pleased. That's exactly what he was after: someone who would instill order in the ministry, whom no one could say was unqualified. The prime minister has taken enough criticism for the appointments of Amir Peretz to Defense and Avraham Hirchson to the treasury. He believed that Friedmann, or Rubinstein, would be greeted with a standing ovation and that he would reap the rewards. "What other prime minister appointed an Israel Prize laureate as a minister?" one of the advisers asked Olmert.

The discussion focused on the candidates' pluses and minuses. Rubinstein is a wonderful person, affable, well-liked, who understands the political nuances and will know how to stay out of trouble. He has already been there, in governments, and has been a member of ministerial committees. On the other hand, he is no longer young, is not entirely healthy and is not a stunning choice. "He's more of the same," one Olmert confidant apparently said. "A retired politician, not a meteor, a bit lacking in charisma."

Friedmann, in contrast, is a super-jurist (did we already mention that he's an Israel Prize laureate?) with sharper teeth than Rubinstein's, who expresses ideas in articles and interviews about the judicial establishment that exactly match those of the prime minister. His appointment, more than that of Rubinstein, will send a clear, pungent message to all those jurists: There's a new landlord.

The minuses: Friedmann is contrarian, yes, but also a bit of a mystery. He has no experience in political life, doesn't know what a compromise, a deal or kombina is. There's no knowing how he will vote in the security cabinet if, say, a proposal is made to bomb Lebanon or to move into Gaza. No one knows what his social-welfare policy views are. He might, heaven forbid, turn out to be a "Shelly Yachimovich-compatible" - referring to the militant Labor MK. Olmert can't afford any embarrassment. He can't be in a situation where his personal appointment, the Doberman he has chosen to let loose on the judicial aristocracy, will vote against him at all kinds of junctures later on.

Last Friday, Friedmann published an acutely critical article in the mass-circulation daily Yedioth Ahronoth, in which he made mincemeat of the decision in the Ramon case and lashed out at the State Prosecutor's Office and at the attorney general. A few of Olmert's confidants panicked: Didn't he go too far, they asked. Is a person who holds these views suited to be justice minister? Olmert was not fazed. On the contrary: If he had any lingering doubts as to whether Friedmann was suited to the post, the article showed him that Friedmann was his man, someone who fits him like a boxer's glove.

To remove the question marks about the candidate's loyalty regarding critical votes on security and social-affairs issues, Olmert asked for a meeting to be set up with Friedmann. The two met on Monday evening, in the official residence. They spent two hours alone, talking about all the most explosive issues, as well as about religious issues.

Friedmann, who is from the Shinui party, has published articles against the way judges in rabbinical courts are appointed. Olmert wanted to ensure that Friedmann would not cause him problems with Shas, the loyal coalition party. He also asked Friedmann to call Shas chairman Eli Yishai and reassure him. Friedmann called him a few hours after taking the oath of office on Wednesday. According to sources in Shas, Friedmann told Yishai, in his style, that, as the song goes, the things you see from here you don't see from there, and that he understands the difference between op-ed articles and ministerial activity. "I have not come to quarrel," Friedmann said.

The nocturnal conversation in his study persuaded Olmert that Friedmann was his man, but he said he would sleep on it one more night. The next day - midday on Tuesday - the official announcement was made and the fireworks began. That day one of Olmert's close friends was asked whether he agreed with the thesis that in less than a year in office, Olmert had already managed to go to war twice: once against Hezbollah and the second time against the judicial establishment. "It depends," the friend said. "I'm not sure that what took place in Lebanon last summer was really a war."

On Wednesday morning a source close to Justice Dorit Beinisch, the president of the Supreme Court, described the atmosphere in her bureau as "a feeling of mourning." In those very words. A hundred meters from there as the crow flies, in the Prime Minister's Office, the atmosphere was one of joy and jubilation, which soured a bit after the waves of public criticism relating to the appointment and the harsh comments against it by two former Supreme Court justices, Mishael Cheshin and Eliahu Mazza.

The weekend surveys will show whether the appointment has helped Olmert in terms of public opinion. Politically, all went smoothly. His stable coalition supported the appointment, and that included the Shas ministers, whose leader, Eli Yishai, had boycotted the cabinet meeting that endorsed the appointment the previous evening. If a ferocious battle erupts between Friedmann and the state prosecution and the Supreme Court, Olmert might suffer the greatest damage.

Be that as it may, it will be fascinating to watch Friedmann's political behavior. On Wednesday, in the Knesset, he looked like a UFO that had emerged from a broken-down spaceship. Ramon's aides stuck close to him and guided him through the terra incognita. In the meantime, Friedmann finds himself at a highly sensitive intersection in the political system, and in one of the more complex interfaces between politics and the law. He will soon have to make a decision about the appointment of judges in rabbinical courts. In his capacity as chairman of the ministerial committee on legislation, he will have to behave with sensitivity and determination with respect to the contradictory desires of politicians more experienced than he. It's hard to exaggerate the depth of the cultural and mental shock he will face in the transition from the academic ivory tower, where he is considered one of the most renowned and important of Israel's legal minds, to the political mud of a government that lacks prestige and popularity.

2. A bridge too few

The Winograd Committee, which is investigating last summer's war in Lebanon, is supposed to answer the question of whether Olmert acted properly in appointing Amir Peretz as defense minister even though both of them have no military experience. People who are close to former prime minister Ariel Sharon believe that if he had formed the government, he would never have dreamed of appointing Peretz defense minister. "Even Sharon, who was the meta-defense minister, in his five years as prime minister, would not have dared inflict that on the country," his confidants say.

Seeking to illustrate how critical it is for national security that the top man understand military matters, the associates recall an instructive story from the Sharon period, which is also compatible with recent reports about preparations the army is making for an operation in the Gaza Strip.

The events in question took place in the summer of 2000, a few months after Operation Defensive Shield in the West Bank. After a serious terrorist attack in Jerusalem, the army chiefs, led by the chief of staff, Moshe Ya'alon, went to Sharon and insisted on a "Defensive Shield II" in the Gaza Strip.

"Absolutely," Sharon said, "bring me plans."

The prime minister's aides were uptight, and asked: "Why another Defensive Shield?"

"Relax," Sharon told them. "We'll hear what the army has to say and we'll decide."

The terrorist attack occurred on a Wednesday. On Thursday the General Staff worked out plans and it was decided that they would be presented to Sharon on Friday. At midday Friday the officers arrived at Sharon's ranch. They described the operation to the prime minister: The tanks will enter from here, exit there, climb here and descend there. Sharon listened and nodded.

"Will the tanks be taken there on tank carriers?" he asked.

"Certainly," the generals replied.

"Do you remember that small bridge that I ordered you to flatten two months ago?" Sharon asked. "If there is no bridge there, how will the carriers get through?"

The senior officers were embarrassed. They scratched their heads, huddled by themselves for a bit, made a few phone calls and came back to Sharon. "Give us two hours and we'll get back to you with answers," they said.

"Fine," Sharon said with much patience. "Take as much time as you need."

The army men folded up their maps and left. The director of Sharon's bureau, Dov Weissglas, who was concerned that the army would drag Sharon into a large-scale operation in Gaza, asked if he could stay at the ranch so that he wouldn't have to drive to Tel Aviv and then come back.

"We'll be happy to have you stay here and eat with us," Sharon said. "But there's no need - they won't come back."

And in fact they didn't come back. Not to this day.

So it was because of one small bridge, and because Sharon knew better than anyone how to maneuver the army, that a mini-war in Gaza was prevented in the summer of 2002. It's interesting to think how he would have behaved on July 12, 2006, if he had been in the Prime Minister's Bureau. "He would have bombed for 48-72 hours and been satisfied with that," one of his confidants says.

Sharon's staff asked him, back then: "If you didn't intend to launch an operation in the first place, why did you let the officers prattle on?"

"Because if I wouldn't have let them," Sharon replied, "people would have said that I'm not letting the Israel Defense Forces win."