Behind the Lines: Joint chiefs

Can the members of Israel's most exclusive club put rivalries aside and sit together for a few hours?

anshel pfeffer 298.88 (photo credit: )
anshel pfeffer 298.88
(photo credit: )
It was just a simple breakfast, for four participants. Without fanfare or ceremony, they sat down to the table in the family dining room, behind closed doors, for a meal that would never be reported in the media or mentioned decades later in history books. But for the small and long-serving kitchen staff of the presidential mansion, it was a return of the king. After eight months of president Moshe Katsav's forced exile to his Kiryat Malachi home, during which all that had been asked of them were light refreshments for the occasional receptions held by acting president Dalia Itzik, they were back in business. The official dinner, set with the golden stripe and emblem of the state, was once again clinking on the trays. All four men had been regular guests in the past. Their tastes were familiar, even if two of them had been absent from these discreet gatherings over the last few years. The elderly cook remembered exactly what kind of olives one of them had always enjoyed during his weekly visits, and no one had to be asked how he drank his tea or coffee. The short meal over, one of them passed around a box of Cubans. Far away from prying eyes, three of them allowed themselves a well-earned cigar, an indulgence that, if spotted by a roving camera lens, would immediately have drawn derision upon them for the hedonistic pleasure. The elder member beamed at them benignly. After a lifetime of smoking, he had kicked the habit, though he sometimes thought that at the age of 83 he should be allowed to do whatever he liked. He recognized the beneficial influence of a fragrant cloud of smoke on the discussion at hand. It was time to get serious. Only six men alive know the entire contents of the "black files" in the Prime Minister's Office safe. Two of them (Ariel Sharon and Yitzhak Shamir) are incapacitated; the other four were sitting around that table. Outside the room, three of them are bitter political rivals, their main objective being to take the ultimate political prize away from the others. Each of them succeeded once in securing the public's confidence. For two of them, public humiliation and a beating in the polls followed. The third seems destined for a similar fate - an outcome eagerly anticipated by the other two. The fourth served two brief terms, one as a result of political stalemate and the second after the assassination of his predecessor. Now he is finally out of the race, forced to take the consolation prize of a presidency devoid of any real political powers. With the exception of Moshe Sharett, who was merely a stand-in for David Ben-Gurion for two years, Shimon Peres, Binyamin Netanyahu, Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert are the shortest-serving prime ministers in Israeli history. By the end of July, Olmert will have surpassed Barak's 19-month term in office, saved from going down as the briefest prime minister of all time. But for all their past and present failings, these are the current members of the Prime Ministers' Club, the most exclusive forum for dealing with the challenges facing Israel. This imaginary breakfast is an optimistic scenario. Only one meeting has been publicly acknowledged in the past, when Olmert convened the forum in his office last June. Those were the early months of his premiership, five days before Gilad Schalit was kidnapped, less than three weeks before the Second Lebanon War broke out. Olmert was still a popular leader, riding the Kadima tidal wave, with Peres his unlikely mentor. Netanyahu was the beaten leader of the opposition, commanding only 12 MKs of the diminished Likud. Barak was busy making millions in the private sector. They met to discuss the Iranian threat - the far-reaching strategic implications of an Islamic nuclear bomb and the steps required to prevent it. WHAT A difference a year has made. Olmert, still in power, is now a political survivor with a bleak and uncertain future. Barak, after an unbelievable comeback to the Labor leadership and Defense Ministry, is poised to do battle with newly-resurgent-in-the-polls Netanyahu. For the first time in 48 years, Peres is out of the Knesset - as president, officially out of the political game. Are the four still capable of putting their rivalries aside and sitting together for a couple of hours? For the good of the country, one certainly hopes that these meetings take place regularly, since the list of threats has grown much longer. Iran is a year closer to its bomb, with the Ahmadinejad regime unfazed by denunciations and sanctions. The Bush administration looks less and less capable of countering its enemies; an early pullback of US forces from Iraq by a new president, leaving turmoil in its wake, is now a distinct possibility. Closer to home, Israel has to deal now with two failed Palestinian entities instead of one, a Lebanese state continuously tottering on the brink and an incoherent Syrian president oscillating between a surprise attack and diplomatic initiative. The nightmare scenario of three simultaneous wars this summer doesn't seem so incredible. A national unity government at this stage would only cause a new round of bickering over portfolios and a division of the spoils. But a behind-the-scenes cease-fire could be in the interests of all sides. All three leaders can do with a period of calm. By now, Netanyahu must have realized that the government isn't going to fall as quickly as he was hoping after last summer's war. Meanwhile, he should find a way of integrating his successful international crusade - persuading major financial organizations to divest from Iran - into a wider national effort. Barak might have promised his party that he'd seek an early date for new elections, but he would do much better to get his new ministry in order. As the only man to have served as prime minister, defense minister, IDF chief of General Staff and head of the Intelligence Branch, he knows which questions to ask the generals and spy chiefs - and they won't dare pull one over on him. The question is whether he will succumb to his instinctive urge to monopolize the defense brief, or prove capable of restoring a proper flow of information and options for action between the military and the entire cabinet. After all, the Winograd Committee's main conclusion in its preliminary report was that the IDF-government pipeline had completely broken down. Meanwhile, Olmert, after having defied all predictions and managed to keep his government together despite the war's fallout - even broadening its base by bringing in Yisrael Beiteinu - will have to be the one providing the framework in which the rivals can work together harmoniously. Peres, for the first time in his career released from political considerations, should be the one defusing tensions between the other three, and the troubleshooter sent abroad on delicate secret missions. Perhaps it's wishful thinking to believe that the four can overcome years of animosity and their future ambitions and work together for a few months, but the challenge facing Israel right now, perhaps the most complex ever, may require the input of every possible prime minister.