Analysis: The Premier Club

There are two types of ex-PMs: the Begin type who fades away, and the Ben Gurion type who never retires.

olmert and bibi 88 (photo credit: )
olmert and bibi 88
(photo credit: )
One of the more shadowy organizations in the Israeli establishment is the Israel Atomic Energy Commission. Despite its name, the commission has little if anything to do with the Electricity Company. Its director general since 1993 has been the unobtrusive Gideon Frank, but the chairman of the commission is the prime minister himself. He also appoints the other members but they aren't changed often. The commission administers both Israel's nuclear reactors, in Soreq and near Dimona, and deals with every aspect of the country's nuclear policy, at home and abroad. Ever since David Ben Gurion set up the commission in 1952, the Israeli atomic program has been the exclusive purview of the prime minister. On the night of Ariel Sharon's second stroke, shortly after the powers of office had been transferred to Ehud Olmert, the caretaker prime minister was taken for a number of secret briefings and given certain files to read. During what is called "black hours," Olmert was made privy to what is known only by prime ministers on certain historical aspects of the nuclear policy, agreements and assurances that bind and secure Israel to this day and in the future. There are currently six men alive in Israel who have been exposed to this knowledge. Two of them, Sharon and Yitzhak Shamir are incapacitated for health reasons. The other four, Olmert, Shimon Peres, Binyamin Netanyahu and Ehud Barak are all still active in political life. Three of them at least, see themselves also as future prime ministers. Shimon Peres was also a central player in the events that created the basis for the nuclear policy half a century ago. Much has been made of the Prime Minister's Forum that met Monday, to discuss the Iranian nuclear crisis, as a group set up to exclude Defense Minister Amir Peretz from the discussions on the most urgent security challenge facing Israel today. No one has yet to hear any hint of displeasure from Peretz over the meeting that included his archrival Barak but kept him out. The reason for that is that Peretz knows there are certain matters that the only people an inexperienced prime minister can consult with, are those that sat before him in the same office. Confronting the Iranian bomb will call for military, diplomatic and other measures that could well have a profound effect on those issues that have been decided before only by the prime minister. Peretz has more than enough on his plate right now without insisting on being part of that. That doesn't mean there aren't political side benefits to the arrangement. And it's not only reminding Peretz of his place in the scheme of things, though that is also one benefit. There are two types of ex-prime ministers. There is the Menahem Begin type. A leader who realizes that his time is over and fades quickly into the background, leaving the stage entirely to his or her successor. And there is the Ben Gurion type who never really retires, but continues pulling strings and meddling, never capable of relinquishing responsibility. Ben Gurion did that when on the eve of the Six Day War he harangued the country's leaders that they were courting disaster. In that sense, Peres, Barak and Netanyahu are all potential Ben Gurions and on top of that, they all still harbor political ambitions. Olmert not only needs them as his advisors, he also cannot afford having them as critics on this, the most difficult part of his job. By offering them membership of the most exclusive club in the country, he is also ensuring that they will all be singing the same tune. Olmert's biggest worry is his bitter political enemy, Netanyahu, who says in every interview that Iran is Israel's most deadly problem. By having him on board, he's making sure that Netanyahu and the Likud keep the atomic question out of politics and don't use it as another reason to attack the government. An ex-prime minister should be responsible enough to know that anyway, but the threat of losing his seat on the forum should make extra certain that Netanyahu, or the other two exes for that matter, never succumb to the temptation. There are also prestige points for Olmert to be scored here. Unlike Netanyahu and Barak who won direct elections, he realizes that he is prime minister by default, running in the last elections as Sharon's proxy. Peres likewise never won an election, but still, there is only one Shimon Peres. In chairing a special meeting with his three predecessors, he is surrounding himself with the aura of statesmanship that still eludes him. Olmert's need for a prime minister's club to deal with the most weighty challenge confronting the nation shows how far he still has to go in order to don the mantle of leadership. Those of us who still miss the confidence inspired by Ariel Sharon were starkly reminded yesterday of his absence. Arik never felt the need for a council of elders to support him while deciding Israel's fate.