Livni's Opportunity

Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni radiates sincerity and matter-of-factness, freedom from political considerations and a willingness to delay gratification for the sake of national goals. In the reality of politics, of course, this is possible only in part. Saints work with the downtrodden in Calcutta, not one step away from the position of prime minister. But the impression is worth its weight in gold.

Livni is now located beside Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in the place where Yitzhak Shamir was at the end of Menachem Begin's term: in the foreign minister's bureau and in line to inherit. Unlike Shamir, she represents sensible moderation. She has a rare opportunity not only to influence the direction of Israeli policy, but also to elevate the Foreign Ministry alongside herself. However, the initial signals she has sent are raising doubts as to whether she will have the wisdom to take advantage of the opportunity.

The problem is not Livni's relative strength in the administration. She has already secured the Foreign Ministry a seat at the table where decisions are made on security issues that have a clearly diplomatic aspect, such as aerial photography forays by the air force in Lebanon's airspace. At her insistence, it was agreed that intelligence assessments of the international ramifications of various policies will no longer be made by Military Intelligence, but will instead be made by the Foreign Ministry.

All of this will not help to change the basic facts of life at the Foreign Ministry, which is staffed by a somewhat different type of person than those that man the Israel Defense Forces, the Shin Bet security service and the Mossad. The latter relate to the foreign service the way kids playing a tough game of soccer on the school field relate to a classmate, a neat and tidy boy with combed hair, who sits on the sidelines and protects his knees from scratches. Their general scorn for public relations and the distinction that they make between people who do and people who talk does some injustice to the diplomats, because even within the security organizations, the fighters evince arrogance toward the office workers and those in charge of external relations.

Ostensibly, this is a propitious time for the Foreign Ministry. This is because under the leadership of Chief of Staff Dan Halutz, the Israel Defense Forces are aiming to reduce their involvement in issues that should be the province of the civilian leadership and to strengthen the emphasis on military matters at the expense of presuming to comment on global processes.

But in fact, there is no one at the Foreign Ministry to take advantage of this situation, and the gap between the foreign minister's influence and the influence of the ministry's staff is expected to remain unchanged. The highest security classification, of being party to a top-priority secret, is granted to only a handful of top officials. The complex procedure of granting security clearances, which requires a polygraph test and the agreement of both the Shin Bet and the person in charge of security at the Defense Ministry, affords entry, at various levels, into the security establishment's intelligence and nuclear holy of holies, to the ministry's director general, the minister's chief of staff (as the minister's intelligence trustee, who both reads raw materials from secret sources and sorts it for the busy minister), the head of the strategic branch that deals with nuclear proliferation, and the head of the center for policy research (the ministry's intelligence division), but not to the center's researchers, who need a security classification, and access to this material, for their work.

Unlike its counterparts in other capitals, the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem does not have the capability to produce policy plans to feed to the government. Among its envoys are skilled representatives and excellent ambassadors, but the ministry's headquarters is weak. If the Foreign Ministry were to go on strike for two months, no one would notice, apart from the families of Israelis abroad who benefit from the ministry's emergency services.

In order to change the situation, Livni will have to hire forces from outside. In other words, she will have to bring about a revolution, with the agreement of her prospective victims - the employees - and the Civil Service Commission. The director general she brought over from the Justice Ministry, Aharon Abramovitch, is a perplexing appointment. In recent months, Abramovitch headed, on her behalf, a team that mapped Israel's interests in the territories, in preparation for carrying out a plan whose details have not been made clear even to Livni herself. However, he lacks professional authority and substantial policy experience. The pampered and contentious employees of the Foreign Ministry are not going to help him help her.