Diplomacy: Dressed for action?

This is the first large-scale military operation in decades to be led by a civilian trio.

olmert and livni 88.298 (photo credit: AP [file])
olmert and livni 88.298
(photo credit: AP [file])
Wednesday marked six months since Prime Minister Ehud Olmert took over for the stroke-stricken Ariel Sharon, and - coincidentally enough - Thursday was the 100th day since he won Israel's elections and went from being the "acting" prime minister to the prime minister outright. In normal times, this would have been considered a watershed week in Olmert's political history, and would have been dealt with feverishly by the media in countless evaluations of his performance. But these, obviously, are not normal times, and the focus now is less on how Olmert spent his first few months in office and more on how he is managing the current crisis. Olmert's advisers and supporters say he has proven steady at the wheel - cool, rational, not prone to rash decisions. They say that he is managing the crisis carefully, listening to different options, weighing them carefully before deciding. His political detractors, obviously, paint a very different picture. On the Left they say he is following the Israeli reflex of trying to solve all problems using brute force, and on the Right they argue that he has acted much too slowly. Indeed, those on Olmert's right maintain that his inaction over the last six months in the face of continuous Kassam rocket fire on Israel was largely responsible for the current crisis. According to this reasoning, had Olmert ordered the Gaza reengagement weeks ago, as many in Sderot had long demanded, matters would not have gotten so far out of hand: The Palestinians would not have brazenly tunneled into Israel, killed two soldiers and kidnapped Cpl. Gilad Shalit, and fired rockets not only on Sderot, but also on Ashkelon, the country's 13th largest city. Regardless, the crisis has completed overshadowed Olmert's first 100 days in office. Indeed, it has rendered those first days rather inconsequential. The first half of this period Olmert expended most of his energy trying to set the foundations of his coalition, and getting his budget passed. The second half he spent trying to sell the world on his realignment plan. While the budget did pass, his coalition is shaky, with cracks not only in the coalition, but also in his party, already clearly evident. And as far as realignment is concerned, ever since the attack on Kerem Shalom, no one - not even Olmert himself - has talked much about unilaterally withdrawing from most of the West Bank. Instead, the only realignment being discussed these days is a realignment of Gaza. THOUGH THE verdict on Olmert's performance during this crisis will have to wait until the outcome becomes clear - something security officials said this week could take weeks and even months - one thing that is clear is that this is the first large-scale military operation in decades being led by a triumvirate that is quintessentially civilian: Olmert, Defense Minister Amir Peretz, and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni. Not since the days of Levi Eshkol in the 1960s, said Yehuda Ben-Meir, a former deputy foreign minister and author of a book entitled Civil-Military Relations in Israel, have those from the civilian sector so dominated the country's decision-making. "Today we have a clear security crisis with a key military element involved, and the heads of the civilian echelon have not been involved in security matters and not accumulated years of experience dealing with them," he said. Indeed, neither Olmert, Peretz nor Livni are security mavens, or so-called bithonistim. Compare this with previous governments, and the difference is clear. Sharon had extremely rich military experience, as did his defense minister Shaul Mofaz, a former chief of staff. Ehud Barak, also a former chief of staff, served as his own defense minister. And Binyamin Netanyahu, when he was prime minister, chose Maj.-Gen. (res) Yitzhak Mordechai as his defense minister. In short, the country is accustomed to situations where at times like these - times of large-scale military operations - the reins are held by those with vast military and defense-related experience. Does it matter? Ephraim Inbar, head of Bar-Ilan University's Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, doesn't think so. He said that like Olmert, it took Sharon time before finally deciding, in April 2002, to launch Operation Defensive Shield, and reenter the West Bank cities. He also said that Yitzhak Rabin was equally cautions during the Oslo period. The decision-making "is not a factor of having a civilian or military background, but rather a function of their understanding of the reality," Inbar said. But Yoav Biran, a former Foreign Ministry director-general, has a different take. He thinks there is a difference in the way those from civilian and military backgrounds approach matters, and that Israel is better off if those calling the shots are not locked into a military frame of mind. Civilian leadership is preferable in general, and in the current crisis, Biran said, because "in the past the security school gave the army and security officials superiority in the presentation of the issues, in analyzing them, and in making the recommendations - even in the diplomatic sphere." For instance, he said that in the past, the country's leaders turned to the IDF and military intelligence for a reading on what the world's reaction would be to specific military actions, rather than to the Foreign Ministry. This was done, he said, because the security establishment over the years developed a mythic halo, and what IDF officers said about a particular issue was considered to be the "real thing," while what came from the mouths of diplomats was derided as somewhat inferior. This time, Biran said, more weight is being given to the diplomatic sector. "Believe me, I know," he said. Biran said that over the years, even the generals have come to realize that while military might may be important, it is not everything. "You may be able to carry out a successful military operation, but not reap its fruits because the diplomatic environment hasn't been properly prepared and won't allow it," he said. It appears, Biran said, that Olmert, Livni and Peretz are very aware of this. LIVNI MADE this clear on Wednesday, a few hours before the IDF rolled back into Gaza, when she said that Israel had in general managed to get a "diplomatic umbrella" for its military operations. "The formula is simple," she said. "The minute there are IDF actions, they need to fit - in the eyes of the world - the defined goals that they [the world] have accepted." If the actions fit the goals, the world, or much of it, would see Israel's actions as legitimate. But, she continued, if the impression in the world was that the IDF actions didn't fit the stated goals, but rather that Israel was pursuing a hidden agenda, then it would come under a barrage of criticism. On June 28, the Foreign Ministry sent out talking points to its legations abroad outlining three goals of Israel's military operations following the Kerem Shalom incident: Freeing Shalit; "Dealing a blow to Hamas terrorist infrastructure which is thus far operating unhindered," and "Preventing the continuation of terrorist attacks from Gaza which are being launched against civilians inside Israel." These are also the goals Livni has spelled out in conversations with her colleagues, from US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. And the position in the Foreign Ministry is that as long as the military remains within the boundaries of those goals, the world - though it may call for "proportionality" and restraint - will not protest overmuch. Until now, Livni seems to have been right: The criticism of the IDF actions has been perfunctory and mute, best evident in the fact that the Arab world has not yet succeeded in even getting a draft resolution condemning Israel for its actions in Gaza circulated in the Security Council. To achieve its declared goals, Israel is working on a number of parallel tracks. Militarily, it is working to deliver a blow to the Hamas infrastructure by striking at Hamas's armed, political and charitable branches. Thursday's incursion into northern Gaza is aimed at delivering a fundamental blow to Hamas's ability to fire rockets at Israel. The arrests last week, and again on Thursday, of leading Hamas politicians is meant to deliver a blow to their political infrastructure. And nightly raids on Hamas's Dawa institutions are meant in part to cripple the organization's ability to win over the Palestinian population by providing charity and services. On the diplomatic track, Israel is working on two fronts. On one, as Livni said, it is trying to secure a diplomatic umbrella for its military moves, and on the other it is trying to leverage international pressure on Syrian President Bashar Assad to get him to press Damascus-based Hamas leader Kahald Mashaal into freeing Shalit. These efforts are being spearheaded by Russia and Turkey, two countries believed to have leverage with Assad. Saudi Arabia is also involved, with the Saudi king having talked with Assad about the matter on Wednesday. Saudi Arabia, obviously, has no interest in helping Israel, and is motivated by the prospect that the country that brings about Shalit's release will score diplomatic bonus points in the world, especially in Washington. Overall, said one senior diplomatic official, summing up the first two weeks of this crisis, Israel's actions have been characterized by carefully weighing the diplomatic ramifications of its military steps, not by shooting first and worrying about the world later. This, he said, was a product both of the close working relationship that has developed between Livni and Olmert, and to the fact that in this case the defense and security establishment is recommending policy, not necessarily determining it. Determination of policy is being done by a political leadership that, for the first time in years, is not coming from a military orientation.