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Turmoil in Tel-Aviv
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 25 - 01 - 2007

Israel's ex-Chief of Staff's fall was assisted by a stealthy rebellion led by his senior commanders, many of whom have been regularly leaking against him to the Israeli media, writes Jonathan Cook in Nazareth
Belatedly, the Israeli army's dismal performance last summer against the Shia militia Hizbullah during Israel's attack on Lebanon claimed its first scalp. In an attempt to jump before he was pushed, the Chief of Staff Dan Halutz, handed his resignation to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert last week.
Halutz is expecting to be severely criticised by the Winograd Committee, whose report of its investigations into the army's failures during the month-long war is expected in March. He apparently decided to step down after receiving the findings of a related inquiry, led by Dan Shomron, a former chief of staff, into the general staff's handling of the war.
The search for a successor appeared to be settled on Monday when Olmert and his Defence Minister Amir Peretz, leader of the rival Labour party, briefly put aside their bitter feuding to agree on the appointment of Gabi , currently serving under Peretz as the director-general of the Defence Ministry.
, who retired from active service two years ago, had a major advantage over most of the other candidates for the post in that he was not deeply implicated in the army's recent failures in Lebanon. The outgoing chief of staff preferred his deputy, Moshe Kaplinsky, and it was unclear at the time of going to press whether Kaplinsky would agree to stay on as 's deputy.
Halutz is the first Chief of Staff in Israel's history to resign his post. On Tuesday, the Haaretz newspaper published a report suggesting confusion and indecision reigned among the army's top ranks during the Lebanon war. Halutz, a former head of the air force, overrode the views of his general staff, who favoured an early invasion of south Lebanon, and insisted on concentrating on attacks by air. When the Israeli army did begin a ground operation late in the war, it paid a heavy price in soldiers' lives.
Although Olmert was reported to have accepted Halutz's letter of resignation with barely a protest, it presents the prime minister with new dangers in his scramble to avoid a similar fate from the Lebanon fiasco's fallout.
According to Alex Fishman, a senior analyst with the daily newspaper Yediot Aharonot, Halutz left his post earlier than necessary to free himself to appear before the Winograd Committee as a civilian and speak more openly about the summer's events. " [A]s a civilian he can take off his gloves and be transformed from being the accused to being the accuser," wrote Fishman.
Halutz will certainly want to settle scores with many of his former subordinates. But he may also believe that the damage to his own standing will be limited if he can shift as much responsibility as possible on to Olmert and Peretz, both of whose reputations already look injured beyond repair. They in turn appear to hope that they can make it out of the burning building by climbing over each other's corpse.
This has been most obviously manifested in a series of power struggles that culminated last week in a row about Peretz's decision to appoint the first Arab citizen in Israel's history to a cabinet post.
The cabinet seat is vacant because one of Peretz's Labour colleagues, Ophir Pines Paz, resigned in October in protest at Olmert's inclusion of Avigdor Lieberman, the avowedly racist leader of the Yisrael Beitenu party, in the government as deputy prime minister.
Peretz has been discomfited by Lieberman's presence both because of the latter's overt brand of ethnic supremacism (including calls for the expulsion of Palestinians from the occupied territories and inside Israel) and because the populist Lieberman has at times looked suspiciously like a rightwing attack dog for the weakened Olmert.
Lieberman has led the attack on Peretz for appointing Majadele. Lieberman has tried to obscure his real motives -- according to one of his colleagues, Majadele's joining the cabinet would be a "lethal blow to Zionism" -- by arguing that the Peretz made the appointment for an illegitimate reason; the need to win the backing of Arab members of his party in his desperate fight to hold on to the Labour leadership against challengers that include the former Prime Minister Ehud Barak. Lieberman has accused Peretz of being unfit to be in charge of the country's security.
This largely suits Olmert, who is reported to favour replacing Peretz with Barak, a former chief of staff, as defence minister. Barak would give Olmert's cabinet a more credible military profile but at little political cost, as Barak is almost as unpopular with the electorate as Olmert.
Although Olmert has tried to appear personally above all the bickering over Majadele, he has made little secret of the fact that he sides with Lieberman. The prime minister provoked a coalition crisis this week by delaying confirmation of Majadele's appointment that was supposed to take place last Sunday.
His spokesmen argued that Olmert needed more time because he had first to sort out Halutz's successor, and then to complete a possible bigger cabinet reshuffle depending on the verdict -- due to be handed down at the end of the month -- in the trial on sexual assault charges of the former Justice Minister Haim Ramon.
In yet another snub to Peretz, however, other sources close to Olmert suggested that the prime minister wanted the seat promised to Majadele to go instead to Lieberman's party.
Peretz responded by issuing Olmert with an ultimatum to confirm Majadele's appointment by this coming Sunday, three days before the expected Ramon verdict. Peretz's cabinet colleagues, already manoeuvring against him, denounced the ultimatum as toothless and yet another example of his incompetent leadership.
But if Peretz is on the way out, Olmert's position is no safer. Halutz's resignation and Peretz's diminishment simply shine the spotlight more directly on the prime minister. At the weekend there were calls from across much of the political spectrum for Olmert to stand down and allow the establishment of an emergency government.
Olmert's popularity is at rock bottom. According to a poll published in Haaretz earlier this month, he has a 14 per cent approval rating -- down six percentage points on the last poll. If an election were held, Olmert's Kadima party would win only 12 seats against 29 for the rightwing opposition Likud. Olmert's main challenger for the leadership of Kadima is his Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, who has a 51 per cent approval rating. She has been adding to his woes by cultivating a high-profile friendship with the US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Together the two women have been hinting -- over Olmert's head -- that they are working on a "peace plan" for the Palestinians.
The post-Lebanon malaise that has drained initiative from Olmert himself and fuelled the backbiting with Peretz prompted a Haaretz editorial last week whose headline called on the prime minister to "Govern or quit". Another senior commentator, Aluf Benn, observed that Olmert's days were numbered: "From this point on, Israel finds itself in a period of a leadership vacuum ... Olmert is the last one standing, the only one available for removal."
That judgment was underscored by a third corruption scandal to hit Olmert last week -- mirroring a similar series of scandals that plagued his predecessor Ariel Sharon's premiership.
In the latest criminal investigation, Olmert is suspected of trying, while being a finance minister in 2005, to alter the terms of a privatisation tender of one of Israel's biggest banks, Leumi, to benefit an Australian friend, Frank Lowy, a real estate magnate.
The previous two scandals relate to his period as industry minister, when allegedly he took decisions that benefited the clients of his former law partner, Uri Messer, and made political appointments to the Small Business Authority.
Olmert may be more vulnerable to the investigations than Sharon, given his unpopularity and the fact that he has failed to make himself appear indispensible in handling the biggest issue in Israeli politics; the country's conflict with the Palestinians. So far Olmert has not managed to pull out of the hat the equivalent of Sharon's disengagement from Gaza.
The danger is that Olmert may hope to find a way out of his loss of credibility in other ways, not least by encouraging ever greater Israeli and US belligerence towards Iran.


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