Another Tack: The thin end of the wedge

The textbook notion of government is that the executive branch, headed by the prime minister, is actually in control, formulates policy and calls the shots. That’s the naïve theory. But as Sir Humphrey, Yes Minister/Prime Minister‘s quintessential civil servant has relentlessly striven to enlighten TV audiences worldwide, true power resides elsewhere. When James Hacker assumed office, Humphrey lost no time to put him in his place.

Sir Humphrey: The traditional allocation of executive responsibilities has always been so determined as to liberate the ministerial incumbent from the administrative minutiae by devolving the managerial functions to those whose experience and qualifications have better formed them for the performance of such humble offices, thereby releasing their political overlords for the more onerous duties and profound deliberations which are the inevitable concomitant of their exalted position…

Jim Hacker: I beg your pardon.

Humphrey: You are not here to run this department.

Jim: I think I am. The people think I am too.

Humphrey: With respect minister you are… they are wrong.

Jim: And who does run this department?

Humphrey: I do.

Had Amos Gilad, head of the Defense Ministry’s Diplomatic-Security Bureau, possessed a fragment of Humphrey’s flair for obfuscation and circumlocution, manipulative jargon and subtle subterfuge, he might have made the exact same arguments as Sir Humphrey’s above.

But Gilad is cut from cruder cloth, so he just gave Ma’ariv a bull-in-a-china-shop interview in which he went on the offensive against Ehud Olmert’s decision to link opening Gaza’s crossings to the fate of kidnapped soldier Gilad Schalit. “I don’t understand what they are trying to do. Insult the Egyptians? We’ve already done that. This is insanity, simply insanity,” he exclaimed. “Egypt remains almost our last ally here… this harms national security.”

For its part, the Prime Minister’s Office contended that Gilad ran his own Egyptian sideshow and sought to drag Olmert into a cease-fire deal against his will. The upshot was that Gilad was sacked as lead negotiator with the Egyptians and reinstated only following a humble apology.

IT’S NOT EASY to defend Ehud Olmert, but when push comes to shove one must occasionally rise to the occasion. Even here, where hierarchical authority is treated as a loose recommendation at most, civil servants cannot openly take for granted Humphrey’s view of government.

If Gilad vehemently disagreed with his boss, he should have resigned and then launched a legitimate campaign. But he cannot go on the warpath while on the government’s payroll – no more than a uniformed officer may. Contrary to Humphrey’s conspiratorial predisposition, the civil servant’s job is the disinterested implementation of policies with which he shouldn’t tinker.

Whether we like Olmert or not, this demarcation must be insisted upon. If officialdom’s misconduct is tolerated against Olmert – the darling of Israel’s establishment and media until he became an incurable political basket case – it’s not difficult to imagine what would be unleashed against Binyamin Netanyahu.

There are times when strict compliance with regulations is indispensable, and when our cavalier attitudes to protocol are insufferable. There are times, rare though they be, when Olmert is actually right and rightfully forthright – even if he ultimately lacks the stick-to-itiveness necessary to carry his just fight to its logical conclusion.

To say that Gilad was out of order is to resort to an understatement that even Humphrey couldn’t rationalize. Gilad, a retired general and no amateur newbie, should’ve known better. The example he set for fellow civil servants is nothing short of outright anarchy. Besides, he didn’t vent as a last resort. He’s hardly without influence, clout or opportunity to dissent in proper forums. He boasts prominent allies who lend him sympathetic ears.

DISCONCERTINGLY, GILAD could count on the sympathy of none other than Defense Minister Ehud Barak, under whose auspices he operated. Instead of chiding Gilad, Barak admonished Olmert for engaging in “intragovernmental squabbles.” Did Barak intend to imply that from here on any public servant is free, Humphrey-style, to overrule his formal superiors and impose his say-so willy-nilly?

Or was Gilad’s mission all along to amplify the innuendo of Barak’s own tendentious leaks of sensitive information? Was Gilad doing Barak’s subversive bidding? Was Barak right on the mark when alluding to intragovernmental squabbles? Was he the prime squabbler?

This isn’t just about Israel’s stance vis-a-vis Egypt, but about the license for any civil servant in any ministry and on any issue to sabotage what’s not to his liking or interest. Would Barak himself have magnanimously tolerated such insubordination from Gilad or perhaps the IDF top echelon?

This is a matter of principle. Gilad’s precedent transcends the issue at hand. It’s dangerous.

Olmert restored a fractional minimum of the discipline so sorely lacking in our system. It isn’t endearing, easygoing sabra folksiness and disinclination to pomp and circumstance. It’s a murky morbid mess. Olmert deserves commendation for ever daring to sort it out.

THAT SAID, his reassessment of the situation was long overdue. He should have veered much earlier from a negotiating track bound to have led to a Cairo-sponsored capitulation to Hamas. As it happened, Olmert – even if belatedly – owned up to one of his administration’s biggest diplomatic debacles. It indeed was one of our foreign policy’s more outstanding whopper fiascoes. Without proper mea culpa, Olmert de facto admitted to a gross underlying error and consequently shut down an assortment of ill-considered botched processes upon which he and his government appeared to rely thus far.

Better late than never.

Olmert’s emissaries – Gilad foremost – were swayed by their Egyptian interlocutors. Gilad nearly steered Israel to a rerun of 2008’s fraudulent six-month truce, which Hamas managed to disconnect from the Schalit hostage standoff, and during which it kept shelling the Negev and arming itself to the teeth.

The Egyptians are the last on whom Israelis should count as honest brokers. They are the last who’d wrest for Israel any achievement from its prematurely aborted military operation. All we do by seeking regional go-betweens is enslave ourselves to their self-esteem complexes. See where dependence on Turkey’s good services landed us. We end up forgoing our interests so the mediator won’t lose face. That indeed became Gilad’s paramount concern.

Did Olmert experience an epiphany? Or is he finally unfettered, free to attempt the right thing – now that his disastrous stint is virtually over? Sadly, though, our proverbial Hacker in the end failed to summon the intestinal fortitude to kick his obstructionist Humphrey out irrevocably.
Maybe he was deterred by Sir Arnold. Humphrey’s avid accomplice cautioned that “the next thing you’d have is politicians removing civil servants on the grounds of incompetence. That would be the thin end of the wedge… We’d lose dozens of our chaps. Hundreds…”

To which Humphrey chimed in: “Thousands…”

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