Analysis: With Gilad's firing, PM proves he still calls the shots

It wasn't just that the point man was summarily sacked; it was the public way it was handled.

olmert amos gilad 248.88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
olmert amos gilad 248.88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
How ironic that the apparent undoing of Amos Gilad, arguably one of the most powerful men in the country over the last few years, would come because of an off-the-record interview he gave to Ma'ariv in which he blasted Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. This is Gilad, a former IDF spokesman, the man Ariel Sharon appointed in 2002, during the run-up to the US invasion of Iraq, as the "national explainer," the individual who would speak to the nation and the world and ensure that one and only one message from Israel would come across. Gilad was appointed to that position because of an appreciation that he had a brilliant understanding of the media. Yet it is precisely a misstep he took in the media that brought about his fall from grace. The bad news is that Olmert's suspension of Gilad at a time of extremely sensitive negotiations with the Egyptians over the fate of kidnapped soldier Gilad Schalit and a possible truce in the South will inevitably set back the efforts both to release Schalit and secure a cease-fire. More bad news is that it sends a signal of confusion in Jerusalem to the Egyptians, and indeed to the whole international community. For instance, Gilad, in the interview with Ma'ariv, said that Ofer Dekel, the prime minister's point man on the prisoner issue who has largely been unheard of for months, was out of the country on vacation. The Prime Minister's Office retorted that Gilad's comments were insolence, and that Dekel was indeed abroad, but he was working on behalf of Schalit. What that means is that either one side is not telling the complete truth or that one hand does not know what the other is doing, and Gilad had no idea about another channel that Dekel was working on to bring about the soldier's return. Either way the picture is painted, it doesn't look good. The good news, though, is that Gilad's suspension took place during the twilight period between the exit of one government and the entrance of another. The damage to the country's prestige will, therefore be short term, as the next government will be able to say that a change of personnel dealing with these matters is just the regular nature of governments in transition. But still, there is something very unseemly in what looks like petty politics playing out as the life of a soldier hangs in the balance and rockets continue to fall on the South. Lurking in the background is an apparently intense dislike of Olmert for Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who has almost singlehandedly run the channel with Egypt - through Gilad - since taking over the Defense Ministry. Olmert believes that Barak, together with Foreign Ministry Tzipi Livni, is largely responsible for the fact that he will be leaving office in a short while. It was Barak, after all, who threatened to leave the government last year after the name Moshe Talansky entered the national consciousness unless Kadima picked a new leader. It was Barak who advocated the cease-fire with Hamas last year, a cease-fire attained without the release of Schalit, and it was Barak who was working this time as well for a cease-fire agreement with the Egyptians that would not have been conditioned on the release of Schalit. Olmert seems now to think that Barak's policies were mistaken, and did not bring results. And now that he is at the end of his tenure, Olmert needs results. As leaders approach the end of their regimes, the belief is that they begin focusing on their legacy. According to the legacy narrative, Olmert now realizes that he most likely won't be able to free Schalit, but wants it seared into the country's consciousness that he did everything he could to get him released - thus his last minute decision to tie the opening of Gaza's crossings to the soldier's freedom. This explains, to a certain extent, the very public nature of Gilad's removal. Following the interview in which Gilad slammed the prime minister, Olmert called him in, along with Barak, for a formal dressing down, then reprimanded him in the security cabinet meeting, then filed a disciplinary complaint against him with the Civil Services Commission. Gilad understandably lost Olmert's confidence when he went public with his criticism, but Olmert could have quietly then just taken Gilad off the Egyptian track. The public manner in which he handled this whole affair shows that Olmert was looking for maximum dramatic effect. What makes the whole affair even messier is the extremely powerful role of the man who the prime minister has just summarily dismissed as his envoy. Two years ago, when a key western diplomat was talking about whether Israel could work simultaneously on a Syrian and Palestinian track, the official said he doubted it, because Gilad - who he said seemed to be doing everything - could not be at two places at once. Indeed, in addition to "running" the Egyptian track, Gilad was also instrumental in the negotiations with the Palestinian Authority and a key interlocutor with the Americans and the Europeans. Gilad was respected, had decades of experience, and was also considered by his interlocutors to have the trust of the highest echelon of Israel's political pyramid. Once he lost that trust, it was clear Olmert had no choice but to cut him lose. But to do so in such a public manner, at such a delicate time, just feels a bit unseemly.