Policy mayhem

An internal anarchy of viewpoints is the last thing any government should abide.

Last week, when addressing the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni indignantly complained that "too many higher-ups chatter about negotiations with Syria, each one giving voice to essentially private opinions, thereby giving rise to a harmful anarchy of viewpoints." Right she was. An internal anarchy of viewpoints is the last thing any government should abide. And this government, with its low opinion ratings and dissipating public credibility, must be extra-circumspect, prudent and judicious. Yet Livni has managed to contravene her own wise counsel against harmful anarchy and excessive official volubility. She has launched her own peace enterprise, and made jarring public comments. And she has presented her proposals to Palestinian interlocutors in a series of meetings, including those with Fatah's Yasser Abed Rabbo and Salam Fayyad last Monday, about which she apparently did not see fit to inform Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. Olmert has opted to keep a lid on the festering quarrel for the time being. To openly squabble would be yet more detrimental. But, courtesy of Livni and some of her colleagues, the cabinet's rifts and divisions are all-too evident. Defense Minister Amir Peretz, for instance, recently conducted his own conversations with PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas and has been telling all and sundry that he's preparing his own peace plan. Shimon Peres, globetrotting and conferring abroad as always, is also said to be hatching a plan. Only last Wednesday he met in Seville with former PA security chief Jibril Rajoub and Abbas adviser Muhammad Shatiya. The public is certainly looking to its government for a strategic vision to address the threats and growing extremism that surround us. A single strategic vision, that is. Not a series of uncoordinated, and probably contradictory, initiatives by individual ministers. The current penchant for ministers to chase the limelight and throw more half-baked solutions into the dangerous regional mix is counterproductive and strengthens the impression of a wavering government. The ceaseless chatter of which Livni complained, and in which she herself has now engaged, is an unmistakable symptom of confusion at the highest levels. Candidates, it is patently clear, are lining up to stake their claims to the country's leadership, setting out their own agendas notwithstanding the consequences of this cacophony for effective governance. Livni has essentially thrown her hat into the Kadima leadership ring before any primary is even in the offing. The battle to succeed Olmert is already on, and upper-echelon anarchy, or at least fickleness and disloyalty, is the inevitable consequence. The inconsistency, of course, starts at the very top, and the summer's war set the tone. We were told by the prime minister - or by colleagues whom he chose not to publicly correct - that the IDF would not let up until the kidnapped reservists were returned, that prisoner releases would not be contemplated, that the war's objective was Hizbullah's destruction or disarmament. The reality was starkly different. And there have been inconsistencies and vacillations, too, with respect to the Palestinians - regarding the impounding of PA tax revenues, stemming the gunrunning to Gaza, stopping the Kassams on Sderot, refusing to swap terrorists for abductees and even the whole question of negotiation with the two-headed Abbas-Hamas PA. In the last few days, indications that there would be prisoner releases as a holiday gesture were reversed in favor of the previous position of ruling out any such releases before a deal is reached to set Gilad Shalit free. Self-evidently, Olmert is trying to balance a host of unenviable and conflicting pressures - including those stemming from the security establishment's assessments, Israeli public opinion, international concerns, the relative standings of Abbas and Hamas in the Palestinian public perception, and more. But leadership requires that, after the multitude of factors are presented and debated, strategic decisions are taken and then followed through. There is no other way to effectively manage national affairs. The government owes it to the people to get its act together, decide where it is heading and maintain internal discipline as it pursues its chosen course. It will not be easy to restore credibility and coherence to government policy. But deciding on basic objectives and strategies, and speaking with one voice, is the necessary start.