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(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
It is ironic to think of Ehud Olmert as a standard-bearer for proper governmental behavior. But he nearly became just that in the Amos Gilad imbroglio - until, as always, he got cold feet.
Gilad, who heads the Defense Ministry's Diplomatic-Security Bureau, is the point man for the Egyptian-brokered talks on a Gaza cease-fire. On February 18, he blasted Olmert's handling of the issue in an interview with Ma'ariv, particularly the cabinet's decision to condition any cease-fire on a deal to release kidnapped soldier Gilad Schalit. Gilad termed this an "insult" to Egypt and said it undermined national security. "This is crazy," he charged. "Do we really think the Egyptians are our employees?"
Olmert's initial response to this outrageous behavior was impeccable. He reprimanded Gilad, filed a disciplinary complaint to the Civil Service Commission and finally fired him as the country's negotiator.
But unnamed "senior defense officials" charged that this undermined national security, reduced the likelihood of a deal for Schalit and even endangered our relationship with Egypt, and media pundits echoed these nonsensical claims (as if national security and a 30-year-old peace with Egypt really depend on a single civil servant who became Cairo's interlocutor only three years ago). And Olmert backed down. Last Wednesday, after Gilad finally apologized - which he initially refused to do - Olmert reinstated him as lead negotiator and withdrew the disciplinary complaint.
Unfortunately, Gilad's apology did not solve the problem. All the reasons why Olmert's initial response was correct remain in force.
FIRST, A civil servant's job is to implement government policy. If he cannot square that with his conscience, he can resign. But staying in office while undermining the policy he is supposed to be implementing - as Gilad did via his public criticism - is completely unacceptable.
Second, Gilad's ability to do his job has been irretrievably impaired. Fruitful negotiations require confidence in one's negotiator. But in this case, the government cannot possibly have confidence that Gilad is trying to secure the deal the cabinet wants: He made it clear that he not only disagrees with the cabinet's demands, but opposes even raising them with Egypt.
Moreover, Cairo followed the whole contretemps and now knows that Gilad shares its opposition to linking the cease-fire with Schalit. That makes it impossible for him to argue his government's case convincingly even if he tries. It also encourages the Egyptians to remain inflexible, since they know Gilad is pushing their position in Jerusalem.
Third, Gilad's comments show that he never was competent to do the job - because he saw his mission not as furthering his government's aims, but as furthering Egypt's aims. Indeed, he opposed the cabinet's policy primarily because he deemed it an "insult" to the Egyptians, who are "not our employees." It apparently never occurred to him that neither are Israeli ministers Egypt's employees, and the cabinet is not obliged to accept Egypt's view if it deems that view contrary to national interests. Nor, evidently, did it occur to him that he is Israel's employee, and hence his job is to promote its policies, not those of its interlocutors.
REASONABLE PEOPLE can disagree about whether the cease-fire should be linked to Schalit. But no reasonable person could disagree that this is precisely the kind of policy decision governments are elected to make. And while Cairo's role as mediator gives its views some weight, the government's primary consideration must be national interests as it understands them.
For all these reasons, Olmert was right to dismiss Gilad and file a disciplinary complaint, and wrong to retract these decisions. Unfortunately, the negative results of these retractions go far beyond this case - because Gilad's behavior is fast becoming the civil service norm.
Many civil servants publicly oppose government policy nowadays. The worst offender is undoubtedly Attorney-General Menahem Mazuz, who has lambasted virtually every legal reform proposed by Olmert's government, often using vitriolic language. In one particularly egregious case, he accused Justice Minister Daniel Friedmann of "abuse of authority" and "a campaign of vengeance against the law enforcement system," merely because Friedmann sought to probe a clear abuse of authority by that system: concealment of relevant wiretaps from a criminal defendant.
In Hebrew, Mazuz's title is "the government's legal adviser." And a legal adviser who uses such language against his client and publicly opposes his client's policies should be fired. Yet Mazuz not only remains in office, he has suffered no consequences whatsoever.
Furthermore, a growing number of civil servants seem, like Gilad, to view their job as "selling" other countries' positions to Israel rather than vice versa. A good example is former government spokeswoman Miri Eisin.
In an interview published in 2007, she declared that when dealing with foreign media, "I don't try and show that the Israeli position is the right [one]" - as if that were not the essence of a spokesman's job. So what did she think her job was? Essentially, it turns out, convincing Israelis to accept others' positions. "Is only the Israeli narrative 'the truth' and all the others wrong?" she demanded in an article published this January, after leaving office. "Israel's national fortitude would not be impaired if we learned to look at reality in a more complex way... [and] to open up to the existence of another narrative." Eisin was also not penalized for this attitude: She left office of her own volition.
These twin rots - publicly opposing government policies and subordinating these policies to other countries' views - have spread wide and deep in the civil service, and uprooting them will be a lengthy process. But had Olmert stuck to his decision to dismiss Gilad and launch disciplinary proceedings, it would have been a good start. Instead, he wound up sending the opposite message: that there was nothing inherently wrong with Gilad's behavior; his only offense was wounding Olmert's feelings, and an apology satisfied that.
Olmert's mishandling of this case will make it harder for any subsequent premier to address this rot. But it must be done if this country is ever to have a properly functioning civil service.