The Invisible Government

In Israel things are run by 'the invisible government.' Its deliberations and its decisions are hidden and leave no traces in official records and archives, but they determine the fate of the country.

The ministers met, the ministers debated, the ministers decided. This, thought the public in its innocence, was how policy was decided in Jerusalem. That is, until the Winograd Committee and the revelations about the decision-making processes in the Second Lebanon War and the Gaza disengagement came along and uncovered an entirely different reality.

In Israel things are run by "the invisible government," the one that is not mentioned in the civics textbooks. Its deliberations and its decisions are hidden and leave no traces in official records and archives, but they determine the fate of the country.

The invisible government operates at two levels. On the first level, the formal position-holders take dramatic decisions in secret - with no minutes or documentation. On the second level, the leaders operate an entire system of advisers and partners who do not have any official responsibility but who have far greater influence than the ministers and senior officials.

The Winograd Committee revealed the first level: The decision to embark on the Second Lebanon War was apparently taken in a phone call between Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and then chief of staff Dan Halutz on the morning of July 12. But this conversation was not noted down and was not documented.

The committee questioned Olmert and Halutz, and both of them evaded a clear answer. It would be interesting to know whether retired Judge Eliyahu Winograd and his colleagues will demand to receive the printouts of the conversations between the two in an attempt to arrive at the truth.

Foreign Minster Tzipi Livni's testimony, which was published this week, described a similar situation. Livni, according to her version of events, suggested to Olmert to stop the shooting on the second day of the war, and he told her to "calm down." She spoke to him on the phone from her car, in an undocumented phone call, and did not repeat her dramatic proposal in any formal discussion or document.

To reinforce her credibility, Livni said her media adviser was sitting next to her in the car but did not hear the exchange.

When the country's leaders need an alibi or additional evidence to explain their decisions, it becomes obvious there is a serious problem at the top. But that is not all. The transcripts of the testimonies before the Winograd Committee reveal that at cabinet meetings and other government meetings, an Orwellian reality prevails. The ministers never say what they really think, and everyone understands that the decisions are taken elsewhere.

The formal meetings are intended only to fill the minutes with hollow rhetoric, to present a supposed consensus and to provide cover in case of future investigative commissions. The Winograd Committee has not dealt with the second, informal, level of the invisible government. Olmert's lengthy consultation with two retired generals, a public opinion poll adviser and a political strategist before embarking on the large action on the ground in Lebanon was not documented, and the prime minister did not tell the committee about it. Nor did he tell it about his consultations with dozens of other people during the course of the war.

Olmert did not invent this method. Former prime minister Ariel Sharon decided to withdraw from the Gaza Strip after consulting with his sons and cronies in the "ranch forum," without bringing in the security and political establishment. The forum's discussions were not documented, and in Sharon's official timetable they were put down in code. The usual explanations for secretive conduct are the chronic fear of leaks and the desire of prime ministers to consult discreetly with close associates who do not represent political or bureaucratic interests.

It is difficult to accept this. When the discussion is not documented, and in effect appears not to have taken place at all, it is easy to deny decisions, and there is no one to bear the responsibility.

Golda Meir ran the country from her kitchen in Ramat Aviv and did not bring the full government into the decisions, but at "kitchen cabinet" meetings, minutes were taken, and the participants were the senior ministers, the top military brass and the heads of intelligence, and not the prime minister's personal friends.

The invisible government gives rise to another thought: The history books rely heavily on archives, transcripts and documents. The historians are not aware of telephone conversations and whispers and winks that have not been documented. Is it possible that they are missing the main thing, that the deliberations on historic events like the Six-Day War are conducted on the basis of irrelevant information, and the true reality will never be discovered?