Keep an Eye on the Country (And Nili)

When you hear the explanations Defense Minister Ehud Barak's wife Nili Priel is giving for her decision to establish the business lobby Taurus, it seems obvious to say to Barak: Keep an eye on Nili, just as he urged those around him two years ago when he divorced his first wife - "Keep an eye on Navah." Just as his request in those days sounded forced, Priel's explanations this time are not convincing. She claims that her new enterprise is not at all associated with her husband's position and relies entirely on her acquaintances with decision-makers in Israel, which derive from her work in the past. But this smacks of an intention to exploit her new status to get rich.

It is recommended that she change her mind about the idea and not mix her business ambitions with matters of state: The past months provide living proof that public figures (and their spouses) who do not have the sense to overcome their greed meet their end. Not only have they lost their status, they are also now sunk in huge legal expenditures to extricate themselves from the witness stand and the threat of conviction that hovers over them because of their behavior.

In recent days, Barak has not been sounding convincing either in his struggle against the 2009 budget. The Finance Ministry has proposed a budget that is, as usual, controversial, but instead of discussing its substance, the defense minister aims to disrupt the timetable and delay the proceedings until after the Kadima leadership election.

Barak is justifying his position with the claim that the budget discussions are falling victim to the Kadima race, but this is self-righteousness. In fact, Barak is the one motivated by political considerations and is subordinating the good of the country to them. Barak is interested in combining the budget discussions with the negotiations on forming a new government after the Kadima election. He assumes that his bargaining position - his own, and that of his party - will be better than it is now. He has his own view on the necessary size of the defense budget, on the Finance Ministry's expectations for cuts and efficiency measures in the Israel Defense Forces, and on the relationship between defense and civilian needs.

The Labor Party has its own view on the desirable rate of growth in national expenditures (not 1.7 percent, as the treasury is proposing, but 2.5 percent), and it aims to discuss this in the political talks after the Kadima primary. This approach serves Barak's selfish interests and Labor's party interests, but not the public's interests. There is no doubt that the national interest is to let the government continue to run the country without further shocks (the die has been cast: Prime Minister Ehud Olmert will make way for someone else). Running the country includes preparing the budget for the coming year.

Linking approving the budget with the Kadima race and the expected political scurrying afterward (a new government in the current Knesset? a declaration of early elections?) will lead to extortion and us getting carried away by irresponsible considerations. The price the country will pay in undermining the economic situation and Israel's status in the international credit market will exceed by far the political benefit Barak and his party might extract from their current moves.

Barak's conduct invites a call to order regarding both substance and style: The country's citizens are entitled to expect that their leaders will speak to them straightforwardly. They are realizing that the defense minister is preventing substantive discussions on his ministry's budget, but is diverting his rhetorical fire at the prime minister and foreign minister. They know that when the Labor Party's heads explain their proposal to postpone the budget vote with the need to avoid Kadima's internal struggle, they aim to exploit the opportunity that might arise for their party after Kadima decides between Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz.

And they know that when Barak suddenly starts to attack Livni and her personal abilities, it isn't the good of the country he has in mind but his intricate calculations on how this attack might help him survive in his position and ascend from it to the prime minister's post.