TEL AVIV, Israel, March 2 (UPI) -- The directive Israel's former ambassador to Britain Zvi Shtauber received from Jerusalem made him happy: Finally Israel was going to say "yes" to a peace initiative.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair had just called for an international peace conference and Foreign Minister Shimon Peres instructed Shtauber to convey Israel's consent. The ambassador promptly asked to meet Blair's secretary and got one at incredible speed. The next day he was at 10 Downing Street.
Shtauber delivered the message but the official's reaction was surprising: "Are you sure this is your government's policy?" he asked.
"I received you quickly to protest a telephone call from your prime minister's office criticizing the initiative," Shtauber recalled being told.
An uneasy relationship often exists between the Israeli prime minister's office and the Foreign Ministry. Prime ministers tend to handle contacts with the United States themselves. Former ambassador to Washington, Moshe Arens, recalled at a Tel Aviv University conference this week that he used to communicate directly with the then-Prime Minister Menahem Begin. The foreign minister, Yitzhak Shamir, got copies.
Politicians handle the peace process and the relations with the United States themselves because such topics could enhance their popularity among the electorate, maintained Foreign Ministry former director general Alon Liel, who now teaches international relations at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.
Today's politician is not a party appointee but one influenced by rating. Therefore he handles issues that were once left to the diplomats, and lets the diplomats deal with countries such as Salvador and Guatemala and help Israelis stranded or missing abroad, Liel maintained.
This approach pushes the politicians into the defense establishment's arms. Their considerations are more national and the risks they are willing to take are smaller, Liel added.
Moreover, retired generals have switched to politics and politicians; as a rule, they feel a tremendous urge to protect their flanks and ensure security. Hence a coalition of politicians and the defense establishment pushed the diplomats aside, he concluded.
Israel's Defense Ministry has for decades pursued intensive contacts with foreign governments and security forces, sometimes to the diplomats' chagrin.
Peres' extremely close ties with France, when he was in the Defense Ministry, led to the French help in building Israel's nuclear reactor in Dimona. Secret military ties with other countries, such as India, eventually developed into full diplomatic relations.
Sometimes such contacts caused trouble. In its eagerness to increase arms exports, Israel signed a contract to sell China a Phalcon airborne early warning system. The Clinton Administration forced Israel to cancel the deal. Shtauber, a retired Brig. Gen, a former ambassador and by then head of the Jaffee Center, was sent to Washington to repair the damage in Israeli-American relations.The Americans suggested the Israelis consult with their Foreign Ministry before approving arms deals and Shtauber looked into it.
He discovered the foreign minister signed consent to every sale of minor equipment such as 7.62mm bullets or 20-year-old radios. The Foreign Ministry department that examined proposed arms exports was swamped with paper work. "But they were never asked about bigger deals ... shells, riot controlling equipment or planes," Shtauber said.
Moreover, the defense establishment has an almost complete monopoly on strategic thinking, he noted.
Not that the military intelligence strategic predictions are that accurate. Haifa University researcher Uri Bar-Yosef found the intelligence erred in 20 of 23 strategic assessments it made since 1953. Participants at a Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies conference last May criticized the study. Retired Maj. Gen. Isaac Ben-Israel, who heads security studies at Tel Aviv University, said he was aware of more instances in which the military intelligence was right. However, for each of those right predictions that the researcher did not know, Ben-Israel was aware of one that was wrong.
Prof. Shimon Shamir, who specializes in Middle Eastern history and was ambassador to Egypt and Jordan, suggested Israel erred in teaming up with Britain and France to attack Egypt in 1956. A correct analysis should have shown that the European powers were on the way out, a new, young regime was emerging in Egypt and perhaps an agreement with it was possible.
Israel erred in failing to heed Egyptian President Anwar Sadat's early calls for a deal, and then the 1973 war erupted.
Sometimes the political echelon rightly rejected military assessments. On the eve of Sadat's historic trip to Israel that launched that peace process, the military warned of a possible Egyptian hoax: that gunmen would emerge from the plane landing in Israel and shoot Israel's leaders waiting to see Sadat at the door.
In 1994 a military intelligence estimate said that Jordan's King Hussein would not make peace with Israel before Syria does. Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin thought otherwise and proved right, Shamir noted. Former Foreign Ministry director general Eitan Bentzur said that in 1999 the Foreign Ministry warned that the Camp David summit with the Palestinians was premature, "a recipe for future calamity." Prime Minister Ehud Barak went to Camp David, the talks failed, and the intifada (uprising) erupted.
Former and active diplomats maintained the atmosphere in the ministry discouraged people from contradicting their superiors. The ministry "failed to translate the personnel's quality into influence," said Shtauber.
Liel was frustrated. For months he negotiated with a Syrian representative, the Swiss Foreign Ministry verified the emissary's messages, and Liel concluded peace with Syria might be possible.
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert ridiculed Liel as someone who talked to himself. Liel said that at least five Foreign Ministry officials received his oral and written reports; some people met the emissary, but remained silent.
"One by one they're afraid (to speak up). They're hiding....A diplomat mustn't talk? For what do you get a salary? Armored cars? To shut up all the time?" he asked.
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