Politics: Into the fray

Barak can't stay out of the war in Kadima - and Dichter can't find his way into it.

avi dichter 224.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
avi dichter 224.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
The world focused its attention this week on the war between Russia and Georgia in South Ossetia, and on the competition between the Olympic athletes in Beijing. Israelis should not have been a part of the action in Georgia, and would have liked to have made news in China, but it didn't work out that way. Instead, Israeli journalist Tzadok Yehezkeli was seriously wounded in the Georgian city of Gori, while several Israeli medal hopefuls disappointed at the Olympics. Both international news events dominated the airwaves here, which is strange for a country that is normally dominated by the headlines it generates to the world. But, as usual, Israel's politicians found their way back onto the front pages, and overshadowed both swimmer Michael Phelps and Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili - not by swimming fast or by retreating troops, but by sinking to new depths and initiating their own bloody battles. Public Security Minister Avi Dichter, who launched his campaign for the Kadima leadership this week, said he was puzzled by the behavior of both Saakashvili and Defense Minister Ehud Barak. "Why did Saakashvili think he could invade South Ossetia without considering that he would be attacked by Russia?" Dichter asked in an interview with The Jerusalem Post. "This should be a lesson for leaders: that before they embark on a military operation, they have to consider the entire process of how it could play out. It doesn't matter whether it's in Russsia, Syria or Iran." Dichter himself embarked on an operation this week to capture the Kadima leadership and the premiership. The polls show him having about as much chance of winning as Saakashvili had at defeating mighty Russia. But he said he would not give up. The former Shin-Bet chief was energized by a very successful opening campaign rally in Herzliya on Tuesday in which the admiration displayed for him was much more tangible than at recent events for the two front-running candidates, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz. Unfortunately for Dichter, the event was overshadowed, not only by the latest developments in Georgia and China, but also by an interview that Livni gave to Channel 2, which was broadcast at the same time that he spoke at his event. "The press has always tried to be a kingmaker, for better or for worse," Dichter lamented. "I don't own a newspaper or a television or radio station. The media don't work for me, and I don't work for them. I just hope the press realizes that its goal is to cover candidates and not to create them." That frustration of not being the focus was evident in Dichter's speech, in which he blasted the Kadima front-runners for conducting a "campaign of posters, devoid of content," instead of focusing on the key issues of the day. While Dichter has not succeeded in drawing himself into the spotlight in the race, ironically, Barak, who is not a candidate for the Kadima crown, has become very much involved. And he, unlike Dichter, has succeeded in making the race more focused on issues. LAST WEEK, the main questions in the race were which candidate could form a government, and who could win more mandates in an election. This week, the focus was on the more serious question of whether a prime minister needed to have military experience, or whether good judgment and clear thinking were more important. Barak was angered by a statement Livni made in the Channel 2 interview, in which she blasted Barak for "withdrawing from Lebanon in one night, and leaving South Lebanon in the arms of Hizbullah," while she distanced Hizbullah from the border via UN Resolution 1701 that she negotiated to end the Second Lebanon War. The following day, Barak went on Army Radio and said that Livni's saying that she saw 1701 as her top achievement raised serious doubts about her judgment, because the security establishment saw the resolution as a colossal failure. Barak went further and questioned Livni's decision-making ability. Had Barak stopped there, he might have hurt Livni politically, while raising his own political stock and that of Mofaz, the other former IDF chief of General Staff seeking the premiership. But Barak went further, calling Livni by her full name of "Tzipora," and calling Kadima a "refugee camp" that will never win another election. Those attacks were seen by the entire Kadima leadership as personal, and ended up uniting the ranks of the party behind Livni against enemy fire from Barak. A few days after attacking Livni at his event, Dichter ended up defending her. "You can't achieve anything with nasty words and chauvinistic barbs," Dichter said. "Instead of focusing on the issues, he decided to attack Kadima as a party and its people. Calling a ruling party that a million people voted for a 'refugee camp' takes hutzpa." Even though Dichter has had a storied career in security, he said he was not bothered by Livni's military inexperience. He said she could easily make up for it by consulting with people, and by not repeating Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's mistake of hiring a defense minister who was just as inexperienced as he was. "The prime minister is not a one-man show no matter what his or her name is," Dichter said. "If you have security experience, you need to work with people from other fields of life, and if you don't, you need people with the knowledge that you lack. In a campaign, you can make personal attacks if there is weight to your case. Livni's military inexperience is as much a fact as that she is a woman, and there are advantages and disadvantages to that." Dichter predicted that Barak's attack would boomerang against him and Labor. BARAK'S ASSOCIATES said that regardless of whether it helps him politically or not, he will no longer remain silent when other politicians attack him the way Livni did. They vowed that Barak, who has had a policy of refraining from interviews for most of the past seven years, will be a constant presence in the press until the general election. "He couldn't stay out of it, because he couldn't handle the lies," a Barak associate said. "He cannot remain on the sidelines when lies like Livni's having a positive role in the Lebanon war are being perpetuated, because it will hurt him in the long run if people start believing them. So, from now on, every time people utter such falsities, he or someone else in Labor will speak out and tell the truth." Asked why Barak could not wait until after the Kadima race is over, his associates said that Livni has hinted that she would initiate an early election after the primary, so it was important for Barak to get a head start on the race for the premiership which he believes will be against her and Likud chairman Binyamin Netanyahu. A source close to Barak said Israel must learn from the lessons of Georgia about what happens when a country is too weak and is led by a misguided leader. It is too soon to see whether Barak's new strategy could help him in the long run, but he could not fall much below the 14 seats currently predicted for him in the polls. And chances are that neither Livni nor Mofaz will be helped by Barak's involvement in the race, because while he did highlight Livni's inexperience, he also raised her stature by attacking her. THE ONE clear winner in the political events of the week was Netanyahu, who was not even in the country. As the Labor leader clashed with his possible competition from Kadima, Netanyahu was vacationing in America. When he comes back, he will be bolstered by a long-awaited new spokesman who can do wonders for his image. "Bibi will not interfere in the internal election in Kadima or in any other party," a Netanyahu adviser said. "He, unlike some people, knows when he has to stay out of the way."