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Ehud Olmert’s Amateur Defense

One can’t entirely blame Ehud Olmert for feeling smug these days. He expanded his governing coalition, guaranteed that the 2007 budget will pass in the Knesset and stabilized his government after the tribulations of this summer’s war in Lebanon and in anticipation of the findings of the Winograd Commission investigating that war. And he did all this at a ridiculously low political price. A grandiose but empty ministerial title for Avigdor Lieberman (“minister for strategic threats,” which sounds like something out of Monty Python) brought Yisrael Beiteinu’s 11 Knesset members into the coalition. And a deputy ministry and chairmanships of a couple of committees on Arab affairs kept Amir Peretz’s Labor Party from leaving in protest.

Nor can Olmert be accused of hypocrisy: From the moment he began forming his coalition last April he never hid his desire to co-opt Lieberman. In Olmert’s view, for Kadima to be a genuine center party it has to be at the center of the coalition, with Lieberman to its right and Peretz to its left. He can now play the one off against the other whenever either becomes too demanding.

Olmert’s decision to allow Yisrael Beiteinu to join the coalition did elicit quite a bit of criticism from those who call Lieberman a racist and a thug. But he is not the first right-wing extremist to serve in an Israeli Cabinet: Rehavam Zeevi and Effie Eitam preceded him. Indeed, Lieberman himself served as a minister in Ariel Sharon’s government.

The most depressing aspect of this affair, however, is not the Lieberman appointment per se, but what it tells us about Olmert’s attitude toward security issues. Olmert has displayed a troubling willingness to allocate security portfolios to any and all comers as a means of buying political allegiance.

Granted, Olmert almost certainly has no intention of giving Lieberman any genuine responsibility for security, the title “minister for strategic threats” notwithstanding. The prime minister has reassured Amir Peretz that Lieberman’s job title would not encroach on the Labor chief’s portfolio as defense minister; Olmert has offered similar reassurances to Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz, whose responsibilities include strategic dialogue with the United States. Nor, presumably, will Lieberman be granted any authority over Mossad head Meir Dagan, who coordinates Israel’s effort to counter Iran’s nuclear program. Indeed, Peretz, Mofaz and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni all have made it known that they will block Lieberman’s access to their respective bureaucracies and secrets.

Still, Lieberman has not been rendered harmless. The extent of the damage the abrasive new minister might do was evident last week when, in his first Cabinet meeting in his new post, Lieberman suggested that Israel should deal with Gaza in the same fashion that Russia’s President Putin deals with Chechnya — in other words, with extreme brutality and manipulation of a servile puppet regime.

Also on the topic of Russia, Lieberman’s access to highly sensitive intelligence and operational (read: nuclear) data might be restricted by Israel’s General Security Service, which is reportedly worried about the new minister’s indirect ties with Russian intelligence, through business contacts with former KGB personnel in Russia. There are also concerns that Lieberman’s party, Yisrael Beiteinu, with its heavy Russian immigrant electoral base, has been infiltrated by Russian intelligence. Russia maintains a strong commercial interest in Iran’s nuclear program and seeks to again become a major player in the Middle East. The Israeli police also have been investigating Lieberman for six years for alleged financial improprieties — yet another item in Lieberman’s curriculum vitae that should bar him from a sensitive security post.

In treating security posts as patronage, Olmert appears to be following the unfortunate precedent set by his predecessor, Ariel Sharon, who as prime minister appointed the compliant Mofaz to the defense ministry portfolio largely as a ploy to keep control over security issues in the prime minister’s hands. (After the 1982 Sabra and Shatila massacre in Lebanon, Sharon was legally barred from serving as defense minister.) Sharon also appointed arch-hawk Uzi Landau and then apparatchik par excellence Tzachi Hanegbi to manage Israel’s end of the key strategic dialogue with the United States. Neither had significant security experience, and neither did Israel proud in meetings in Washington.

The difference is that Sharon could get away with these manipulations because he himself was a storehouse of security knowledge and experience; ultimately, he made all the important decisions and maintained his own security dialogue with the Bush administration. In contrast, the current prime minister has virtually no security experience. So when Olmert hands out security posts as political rewards to people like Lieberman, it reflects a dangerous disregard for the importance of security-related matters.

The Israeli public saw the consequences of this type of behavior in the inept management of the recent Lebanon war by Olmert and Peretz. Now, with Lieberman, who in his lack of prior security experience is matched only by Peretz, the prime minister is adding insult to injury. Israel cannot afford to place responsibility for its security in inexperienced hands. In showing such a high degree of cynicism about security issues, Olmert is placing Israel at grave risk.

Yossi Alpher is the former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies and a former senior adviser to Prime Minister Ehud Barak. He currently co-edits the bitterlemons family of Internet publications.

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