(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Strategic Affairs Minister Avigdor Lieberman might do well to spend some time on his current Washington visit learning how a veteran democracy like the United States still has not managed to get its intelligence community in order.
Two years ago, as one of the lessons of the intelligence fiasco that contributed to the September 11 attacks, the post of director of national intelligence was created. The main objective was to unify the efforts of the various intelligence organizations. In reality, due to an internal tug-of-war, the director is crippled since the main information-gathering agencies remain under the Department of Defense.
In other words, a fancy title might be nice, but it's only worth the power that comes with it. And right now, Lieberman has none. The government might have just authorized 20 new positions in his ministry, but Attorney-General Menahem Mazuz isn't the only one baffled about their tasks.
Lieberman explained his willingness to enter the coalition - in exchange for just one ill-defined portfolio - by the urgency of dealing with the Iranian threat. But nuclear policy is under the sole purview of the prime minister, who also serves as chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission and is briefed regularly by its director-general, Gideon Frank. Ehud Olmert is privy to certain information not seen by any of his cabinet colleagues, including the defense minister, and for this reason the only forum he can freely consult with is the ex-prime minister's club. He's definitely not about to admit Lieberman into that inner circle.
So what else can Lieberman see? The Mossad, another organization that reports directly to the prime minister, has been designated the leader of Israel's secret effort against the Iranian bomb efforts. But despite Olmert's assurances to Lieberman that he will be allowed access to top-secret intelligence, he doesn't really decide who sees what.
Mossad chief Meir Dagan is the last person about to give information to yet another politician, and there's little anyone can do to force him. The canny ex-general - probably the only senior defense figure to emerge unscathed from this summer's fiascoes - is to retire next year, making him politically untouchable. Lieberman is shrewd enough to realize that he will have to earn Dagan's confidence the hard way.
Regarding military intelligence, Amir Peretz isn't as formidable an obstacle as Dagan, but at least he's already announced that Lieberman won't be allowed a foothold in his fiefdom. The Jerusalem Post reported yesterday that Lieberman can bypass Peretz by using Olmert's military secretary to summon officers and intelligence files - but he'll have to know what to ask for.
Since Israel's overall Iran strategy is that the threat is the responsibility of the entire international community, that means a lot of diplomacy. But also in this field it doesn't look like there's any space for Lieberman. In addition to Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, there's Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz, who is in charge of the "strategic dialog" with the US. Besides, the really important contacts will be made by the prime minister.
So what is Lieberman to do? With no official responsibility, no powers to request information or official meetings, his only hope is to carve a niche for himself in these matters by the force of his personality, the prescience of his questions and the effectiveness of the department he is about to build.
Lieberman recently said the weight of the decisions bearing down on the prime minister is so great that he needs someone like him to share the burden. He is aiming, together with his new team, to become the prime minister's chief advisor on strategic affairs.
The only problem is that there's already a National Security Council, which is supposed to do that. However, in the eight of years of its existence, despite being headed by former generals and senior Mossad operatives, it hasn't managed to make its mark on policy-making. Lieberman was a mere corporal - but he does have 11 Knesset votes at his command, so perhaps he'll be more successful.