The Most Important Portfolio

If Peretz wants so much to educate Israelis he should demand the justice ministry, which would include the domestic security ministry or at least one of those two portfolios that are concerned with matters of law enforcement.

The Labor Party has so far conducted its negotiations to join the coalition in such a schlemiel manner, continuing Amir Peretz's mistakes from December last year when he avoided the opportunity to form an alternative government and send Kadima to dry out in the opposition for at least a year. Now Labor is behaving feebly. If it crawls into the next government without any significant positions of power, is forced to say amen to Ehud Olmert's policies, the difference between Kadima and Labor will continue to blur and Labor will fade away.

Peretz's preference for the treasury is self-evident. However, his hesitancy to accept the defense ministry is not, if at the end of the negotiations, defense, not finance, will end up being Labor's senior portfolio. Anyone who rules himself out as a potential defense minister confirms his rival's claims that he is not suited for the premiership, which carries the ultimate responsibility for national security and direct responsibility for the Mossad, the Shin Bet and for Israel's nuclear affairs.

It is common to attribute particular importance to the defense, foreign affairs and finance ministry, although these offices have been served by ministers without top-tier political power. In recent years, and especially since Meretz, the Rabin government's senior partner, demanded the education and not the foreign ministry portfolio which it could have taken, education has been presented as nearly as important as the three major portfolios. Meretz confused, whether for sublime or manipulative motives, the subject and the portfolio. Education is very important, but the education ministry and its minister are far less so.

If Peretz wants so much to educate Israelis, he should demand the most important portfolio for a clean Israel: the justice ministry, which would include the domestic security ministry or at least one of those two portfolios that are concerned with matters of law enforcement. In the coming four years, the police will be evacuating many settlements (if one believes the election promises made in party platforms), and a new chief of police, attorney general, state prosecutor and judges and justices, officers and prosecutors will be named to key roles. The justice minister will influence the judiciary branch. The police commands, which Avigdor Lieberman has certainly studied, grants the minister broad authority to make appointments in the upper echelons of the police - and not necessarily from the ranks of the police. The independent existence of a police ministry did not help extract the Israeli police (and its problematic little sibling, the Prison Service) from an ongoing crisis. Its top echelon is inflated - there is no justification for so many police holding the rank of commander as department heads - and it is tainted by the appointment of ministers who mostly excelled in creating political connections. The war against crime is a slogan on file for when the fire gets too close to the rulers and those who insist on refusing to understand this are sent through a very public and humiliating reeducation.

According to the British model, the interior ministry, dubbed the Home Office, is responsible for the police and Shin Bet (MI-5). The American model is more realistic for Israel: a justice ministry that includes law enforcement agencies like the Drug Enforcement Administration, the federal prisons, the Bureau for Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, the US Marshal services and the Bureau for Prisons. The justice minister and the police, clean and combative, will be the kashrut inspector for the state of Israel. Such a job is necessary at all times, and especially when the prime minister is someone who has been repeatedly entangled in criminal investigations, put on trial - an honor that not all his predecessors experienced - and is now under the explosive examination of the state comptroller. Such a prime minister can have a majority in the Knesset. But he won't have moral authority.

Under the pressure from ministers in his party to prefer quantity over quality, Peretz might abandon justice and the police, together or separately, to Kadima and another partner in the government. If it chooses to do so, it will be at the head of the list of those responsible for the failure of the struggle against corruption in the ruling circles of Israel.