Analysis: Dangerous distractions

When cabinet secretary Yisrael Maimon briefed reporters Sunday about the cabinet's decision to continue with the excavations at the Mughrabi Gate, he surveyed Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's presentation of the chronology of events leading up to the work at the site. The ramp leading up to the Mughrabi Gate was destroyed by rain and snow in February 2004, Olmert told the government. On November 16 of that year the government allocated NIS 4.8 million to build a bridge. In what seemed like excruciating detail, Olmert spelled out when meetings on the matter were held with the participation of the IDF, and when his military secretary, Maj.-Gen. Gadi Shamni, briefed Defense Minister Amir Peretz's military secretary, Brig.-Gen. Eitan Dangot, on the issue. At first blush, this chronology seemed logical - to prove to the ministers, and the world, that the decision to undertake the excavations was an orderly one not taken in haste. With hundreds of millions of Moslems around the world up in arms over the issue, it seemed instructive for Olmert to give this chronological account. Except that this does not seem to have been Olmert's intention. Rather, even as angry protests were being heard from Arab capitals around the world, and as violent protests were taking place over the matter in Jerusalem, this exhaustive survey - it turned out - was intended to disarm Peretz's claim in a letter leaked to the press that he was not sufficiently appraised of plans to start excavating the site, and was opposed to the work. And therein lies the rub. With a major crisis at the doorstep, Olmert's energies seemed directed as much toward his rivalry with his defense minister as in dealing with the critical matter at hand. Olmert was right in telling the Knesset's Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee on Monday "there doesn't have to be an intimate relationship between the prime minister and the defense minister. It's not written in any fundamental law or in the weekly Torah portion." H'‚s right, it isn't written anywhere that he and his defense minister have to be best friends. And he may have been right in the cabinet in telling Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz, whose own relationship as defense minister with then prime minister Ariel Sharon was often rocky, said that there may have been even more dysfunctional relationships between the prime minister and defense minister in the past. But this is little consolation, because the existential threats the country faces right now - with Iran on the nuclear threshold, the PA at a crucial crossroads, and Hizbullah again probing Israel on the border - seem as great or even greater than at any time in the past. The country will still have to wait a few weeks to read the interim conclusions of the Winograd report investigating the way the war was waged this summer in Lebanon. But one lesson that seemed clear from the war was that the country needed to focus on Iran, that it needed to shake off the dangerous complacency that seemed responsible for the less than sterling performance in that war and focus on what was truly important - Iran, and preparing for the eventuality of having to militarily deal with Iran in one form or another. The country needs to focus, and the danger in the Olmert-Peretz relationship is that it is a severe distraction at a time when the country - and especially those at its helm - doesn't have the luxury of being so distracted.