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When former Shin Bet chief Avi Dichter visited the White House a few months ago, three nuns started taking pictures of him.
For a man like Dichter, who has spent most of his career under cover, this was surprising and unsettling. But then it became clear that the nuns weren't excited about seeing a former chief of the Shin Bet. They thought they had seen the commander-in-chief.
"Look! The president is here!" one nun said to another, pointing at Dichter.
Dichter may look (a little) like the president of the United States, but he is seeking a much less lofty position in politics - as an MK and a minister with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's Kadima Party.
Sharon recruited Dichter to be the top newcomer in Kadima's Knesset slate, plucking him straight from a three-month fellowship at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy of the Brookings Institute in Washington, where he went after 34 years in the agency.
Many career soldiers have gone from the post of IDF chief of general staff to a cabinet posting.
But Dichter is the first career Shin Bet agent to have worked his way up through the agency and used its chairmanship as a springboard straight into politics.
"I think it's good that people who used to run away from politics are now joining," Dichter said in an interview last week at Kadima's headquarters in Petah Tikva. "I'm glad that there's a new trend of it not being wrong for professionals to enter politics. I hope it brings a new mood, a new atmosphere and new values, too."
Dichter had initially considered joining his former superior at the Shin Bet, Ya'acov Perry, in the business world. But he decided against it, he said, because he wanted to continue serving the country and was concerned that had he first gone into business, the allure of money would have clouded his judgment and prevented him from becoming the clean politician that he wants to be.
Being head of the Shin Bet allowed Dichter to see the top echelons of Israeli politics from a different perspective and learn how key decisions are made. In his five years at the helm of the agency, he worked with two prime ministers, three defense ministers, four internal security ministers and four justice ministers.
The experience convinced him that the system can and should be changed, and he decided that Kadima provided a unique opportunity to do it.
For instance he believes that, except under extraordinary circumstances, governments should be allowed to serve for a complete four-year term, as they do in the United States. "People in the US don't understand how messed up the system is here and how much it costs," Dichter said. "The prime minister and the ministers cannot plan strategy without a stable government. I don't know if the presidential system is the right answer, but a minister should be able to work for four years, so the public will be able to know whether or not he delivered the goods."
Dichter would not reveal what ministry he is interested in heading in a prospective Kadima-led government, but he has made his preference known to the man who presumably will make the decision, Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. While reports have said that Sharon earmarked the Internal Security portfolio for him, Dichter said he could succeed in any cabinet position.
"I don't see any ministry that I can say is beneath me," Dichter said. "I told the prime minister from the first time we discussed my joining politics that if I become a minister, my only two preconditions will be that I don't want to be a minister without being an MK, and that I don't want to be minister-without-portfolio whose only job is to be honored."
With Dichter's request in mind, Sharon insisted that the general election be held no earlier than March 1 - when Dichter's cooling off period from the Shin Bet ends and he would be allowed to enter the Knesset.
DICHTER, 53, said he has always measured his career goals in 10-year increments. He intends to devote the next decade to politics and then re-evaluate his path based on his successes and failures in the political realm.
Asked whether he wanted to be prime minister, Dichter said, "If you enter politics it means you have an ambition to be a minister, and if you become a minister, you ask yourself if you have ambition to be prime minister, but to say now, when I am just a beginner, that I would want to be prime minister would be meaningless."
Although it was Sharon who brought Dichter into Kadima, Dichter said he has full confidence in Olmert. He said the smooth succession from Sharon to Olmert after Sharon's stroke had brought the country a lot of respect around the world and brought voters to Kadima.
"What convinced people to vote for Kadima is the path, not the man," Dichter said. "Olmert knows that he's not Sharon. Olmert is a veteran politician. He knows when he should bark, when he should bite, when he should kiss, and now he knows that he needs to lead. No one remembers now that before he gained power in Egypt, Hosni Mubarak was considered a joke, but now he has been in power for 25 years."
Sharon appointed Dichter to head Kadima's Election Day campaign, which means he is in charge of getting out the vote on March 28. Without Sharon, that job may have gotten harder.
Before he left Washington, Dichter made a point of meeting with people who held similar positions with the Democratic and Republican parties. The Democrats and Republicans had the luxury of having a year to prepare for their race and a much larger budget than Kadima. They taught Dichter how to "micro-target" voters using thousands of volunteers.
"I learned that you can buy everything with money, except enthusiasm," Dichter said. "For that you need volunteers who believe in your cause. I've talked to the people who have been volunteering with Kadima, and for them the reason they are enthusiastic is one word: hope. We tell people that we're not wizards and we can't do everything in a year. But they know that what's needed is not just one man to change things, but an entire team, and that's what we will give them."
Besides losing its main drawing card in Sharon, Kadima also lost a few weeks of campaigning time in the aftermath of the prime minister's stroke. Dichter made a campaign visit to the Netanya mall a few hours before the stroke. No Kadima campaign events have been held since then.
Dichter acknowledged that he looked like a fish out of water at the mall, targeting potential voters rather than terrorists. He looked more comfortable when he spoke Arabic to a couple of Arab women at a clothing store (although they asked him to tell the cameramen not to show them on television talking to him). Only on his way out of the mall, when he talked to security guards about avoiding suicide bombings, did Dichter look truly at ease.
During his years in the Shin Bet, Dichter visited shopping centers more often to help protect patrons from terrorism than to buy something for himself. "I'm not used to being in a mall," Dichter admitted. "I get impatient being there for more than 10 minutes. I don't like to shop."
His shopping experience when he opted to enter politics was much more pleasant. Sharon asked him to follow him politically before he decided to form Kadima. Had Sharon remained in the Likud, he would have had to receive special approval to allow Dichter to run. Other parties were never an option for Dichter.
"I can't tell the difference between Meretz and Peretz," Dichter said.
The difference between Dichter and his former colleagues in the Shin Bet was clear a month ago when The Jerusalem Post asked four former top Shin Bet officials from four different parties how they would tackle terror.
Dichter said security officials were handing terror properly; Ehud Yatom of Likud and Yisrael Hason of Israel Beiteinu said they would be more forceful; and Ami Ayalon of Labor said the solution was to withdraw from nearly all of the West Bank. Dichter said that Ayalon, who was his predecessor at the helm of the agency, should know better than that.
"As I see the situation, when you deal with terrorists you have to crack down," Dichter said. "Ami knows you can't do that with flowers, love and kisses."
Dichter was the father of the policy of using "targeted assassinations" to kill terrorists ready to strike - men who are classified as "ticking time bombs."
However, when it comes to peacemaking, Dichter is in no rush. He said that Kadima would not lead the country to a unilateral withdrawal from the West Bank, nor was it in a hurry to make territorial concessions to the Palestinians.
Although he supported disengagement from Gaza, he rejected the perception in the public that Kadima would withdraw from much of the West Bank regardless of what will happen with the Palestinians. He said the West Bank was different from Gaza.
"The Palestinians haven't enforced any of the many plans that we signed with them," Dichter said. "We have time. We're not going to try to end the problem without solving it. We're not going to withdraw from the West Bank unilaterally just because it was done in Gaza."
Instead, Dichter has adopted Kadima's official party line that the only plan that can be used to solve the Middle East conflict is the internationally-brokered road map, which Sharon signed with Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas.
"The road map is not ideal, but it's the best we have to work with to receive the support of the US and the European Union," Dichter said. "The question is the attitude of the Palestinian Authority. But we won't try to choose who the Palestinians' leaders will be. The choice is theirs."
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