The Consigliere of the Knesset

Who are the king-makers and spin-masters behind our politicians?

Reuven Adler 224 88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Reuven Adler 224 88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Legend has it that last year, when the first Winograd Report on the Second Lebanon War was about to be dropped like a cluster bomb onto the Israeli political and military scene, political king-maker and spin-master supreme Reuven Adler switched off his cellular phone, packed his bags and hopped onto a plane to New York. Adler, head of a vast media and advertising empire and long-time strategic consultant to the top political echelon, was in a pickle: He was serving as an adviser to just too many cabinet members (almost half the ministers, from all coalition parties). Many of them needed guidance on how to out-maneuver, depose, discredit and beat down their fellow cabinet members - other Adler clients. To spare himself the madness, and to avoid uncomfortable confrontations, Adler simply left the politicians to their own devices and indulged in a few days of relaxation and shopping in the Big Apple. This time, exactly one year later, there is no conflict of interests. Instead, there is a confluence of interests, so Adler is staying put and very much in the thick of things. As strategic adviser to both Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Defense Minister Ehud Barak, the strategist has been working hard to advance the goals of both those clients, by seeking to move Prime Minister Ehud Olmert out of the way so that Kadima and Labor can form a new coalition with Livni at its head. Polls suggest, after all, that only with Livni at the helm of Kadima can the coalition hope to beat the opposition led by the Likud's Binyamin Netanyahu. Kadima is, after all, Adler's creation, his baby. The offensive began on Tuesday night. Hours after Morris Talansky testified that he gave Olmert hundreds of thousands of dollars for his personal use, someone leaked to Channel 1 TV's Ayala Hasson that Barak had met with Adler in a strategy session and was set, on Wednesday afternoon, to call for Olmert's resignation, resign himself or join up with Binyamin Netanyahu. Barak, in short, was going to capitalize on the moral outrage aroused by Talansky's testimony and lead the call for a return to more respectable politics. But Olmert has his own strategists, and at least one of them knows a great deal about Barak. By Wednesday morning, the prime minister's chief adviser, former Barak strategist Tal Zilberstein, was on the radio putting Barak in his place. Sounding uncomfortably like a character out of a Mario Puzo novel, Zilberstein let loose a well-timed threat of his own: "I know Barak took envelopes himself," he charged. "He shouldn't play the part of Asa Kasher [the man who wrote the IDF code of ethics and who news editors assign reporters to speak to on stories relating to ethics]. If Barak thinks he can try and disguise himself as Asa Kasher, roll his eyes, and preach to others about morality, then I have a problem with him. I believe that Ehud Barak understands that he is the last person who can talk about envelopes and cash." One not particularly subtle message being conveyed here, from Olmert to Barak via Zilberstein: Be careful what you say this afternoon. You're also vulnerable. And another: I may be going down, but if you push me too hard, I'll take you with me, with the help of the guy who was closest to you. If Barak hadn't anticipated that comeback from his old consigliere Zilberstein when he planned his moves with Adler on Tuesday night, he should have done. For nine long years before they fell out, Zilberstein was Barak's close confidant and adviser, perhaps even his closest. In the world of mafia fiction, orchestrating the defection of a mob boss's consigliere to the rival family is the height of sophistication, and the height of treason. In the world of Israeli politics, Zilberstein's defection is not much different. Zilberstein's radio threats worked, up to a point. Army Radio's Razi Barka'i took the bait, asking Zilberstein if he personally saw Barak take cash-stuffed envelopes. Zilberstein was evasive. Barka'i then brought on Channel 10's Raviv Drucker, one of the country's preeminent political analysts, for his opinion of the startling charge. Now, the top-rated morning radio news show was focused not on Olmert's cash envelopes, but on Barak's alleged cash envelopes. [For the record, there is no open police investigation into Barak.] Next, Drucker raised the Barak envelope charge at the Labor leader's Knesset press conference. But Barak, the ex-commando and the most celebrated Jewish warrior since Samson, was ready. "I'm not going to respond to every piece of nonsense that's put out there," he retorted. "Gather everything you have and take it immediately to the police," he swaggered. Barak's not particularly subtle message to Olmert and Zilberstein: Bring it on. Do your worst. I've got nothing to hide and I'm calling your bluff. Zilberstein's error was to have given Barak the time to prepare that response. He may have remade the morning radio agenda, but he also gave Barak roughly four hours to formulate an answer, and to ensure that the thrust of the press conference remained the demand that Olmert go, and soon, or Labor would work to bring about new elections. Outflanked and sounding rather like sore losers, unnamed Olmert aides were being quoted by the evening news complaining that Barak and Livni had coordinated their anti-Olmert strategy with joint adviser Adler - hardly an incendiary allegation. The day's cut-and-thrust underlines that beneath the seething political surface, a war of wits, and of threats, is raging, where old alliances mean fresh vulnerabilities and old confidences are easily betrayed. The very fact that Zilberstein now works for Olmert against his old boss Barak constitutes a major advantage for the prime minister. Will it be enough, however, to safeguard Olmert from the strategies of Barak, Livni, and their master adviser Reuven Adler? For more of Amir Mizroch's articles and entries, see his personal blog Forecast Highs