False notes in Olmert-Peretz working relations
The Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert will be meeting defense minister Amir Peretz to attempt a meeting of minds before he is due in Washington for his first White House talks on May 23. He can’t afford to throw his weight about too much, because it is in Peretz’s power to bring the government down by walking out with his Labor party.
Olmert made his displeasure at Peretz’s precipitate actions known at the cabinet’s second meeting Sunday, May 14. He snubbed Peretz’s proposal to discuss assistance to the Palestinians as “immature” – and made sure this was leaked to the media.
The prime minister cannot blind himself to the dissonances in the Labor leader first essay in government as head of the national defense establishment. Too many complaints are coming in. And a war on terror is in progress, after all.
An action which rubbed Olmert’s nerves raw was the defense minister’s creation this week of the post of Chief of Staff to the Defense Minister, which he built around Brig.-Gen. Michael Herzog, who happens to be the elder brother of a close Peretz buddy, tourism minister Yitzhak Herzog.
The elder Herzog has spent the last six months in Washington cooling his heels after the top brass of the military and defense ministry found him unsuitable for a senior IDF position. He has now landed a job which puts him in charge of liaison between the minister and the same generals and high officials who found him wanting, hardly the best way for the new man to achieve a smooth working relationship in his new, immensely responsible post.
Olmert is disturbed by the Herzog appointment on a second score: it is clearly motivated by crass partisan considerations, thereby tainting a government department which has always been strictly concerned to fill key positions with the best possible professionals. The impression is that the Labor leader, instead of focusing on his new job, is engaged in a blatant intrigue to build himself a power base in the defense ministry, to challenge the Kadima leader, the prime minister, when the time is ripe.
Most disturbing of all is the unfavorable impression Peretz made on the senior officers he interviewed in his first 10 days on the job. They were shocked by the vast gaps in his knowledge and understanding of the nature of his watch, a gap which they fear is unbridgeable.
But however much he may rue his choice of partner and head of the most sensitive department of his government, Olmert is stuck. He has been brought sharply face to face with his blunder in choosing Peretz as his senior partner in government and deputy prime minister, while leaving Avigdor Lieberman’s Israeli Beitenu (right-wing Russian) out.
With a slender 66-member majority in the 120-strong Knesset, any of his three coalition partners has the clout to bring the government down – and the Labor leader is making no secret of where the land lies. This weakness is bound to cloud the Israel prime minister’s already problematical debut in Washington next week.