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Tuesday, 21 September 2010

Olmert's Revenge Lifts Israeli Security Veil

AOL News: Tuesday, September 21st

Matthew Kalman

Matthew Kalman Contributor

AOL News
JERUSALEM (Sept. 21) -- A raucous feud between two former Israeli prime ministers has apparently exposed a closely guarded state security secret, embarrassed the sitting defense minister and left the country's military censor flailing.

Ehud Olmert, the disgraced former premier currently on trial for corruption and bribery, has been dumping loudly on former premier Ehud Barak, the current defense minister. In an extract from his forthcoming memoirs and in a public speech on Sunday, Ehud O. has accused Ehud B. of being indecisive and hesitant -- not qualities Israelis value in the man who might have to order an attack on Iran's nuclear weapons.

Olmert also accused Barak -- Israel's most highly decorated military commander -- of trying to prevent "daring security operations" when Olmert was prime minister.

In this composite photo Former Israel prime minister Ehud Olmert, left and Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak can be seen.
AFP / Getty Images
Former Israel Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, left, has accused Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, right, of trying to prevent "daring security operations" when Olmert was prime minister.

Barak described the charges as "pathetic remarks not worthy of a response."

The country's largest newspaper put Olmert's comments on its front page alongside large photos of a site in Syria where a nuclear reactor under construction was mysteriously bombed in September 2007. Israel has never officially confirmed its role in the Syrian raid, whose target remained a mystery until the CIA held a press conference -- complete with spy videos -- nearly a year later.

Olmert himself threw a fit soon after the raid when then opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu let it slip in a TV interview that he had been let in on the decision.

"I was privy to the matter from the outset, and I gave my backing. But it's too early to be discussing this," Netanyahu boasted.

Olmert was careful not to utter the word "Syria" himself this weekend, but his spin doctors have been hard at work in the background making sure that reporters understood the hint.

Stories of divisions between Olmert, Barak and Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi have been an open secret for some time. Ashkenazi said in a recent interview that he and Barak had disagreed over an operation involving an enemy target. The souring of relations between Barak and Ashkenazi led to a humiliating showdown earlier in the summer when the military chief was abruptly informed he would not be staying on for a customary fourth year in his post.

"Olmert's blabbering has made many journalists very angry, because they have been trying to publish this story or similar stories for months," Shuki Tausig, acting editor of The Seventh Eye, an Israeli media magazine, told AOL News. "Now, in order to take revenge on some political rivals, he is coming out with these so-called secrets."

The episode has also raised questions about the nature of Israel's far-reaching censorship laws, which give the military censor a wide range of powers to prevent the publication of material that could harm state security.

"In this day and age, you simply cannot exert centralized control over information or military secrets, as they are attempting and failing to do. Especially when powerful figures are chafing to expose them," said Richard Silverstein, author of the Tikun Olam blog that regularly exposes Israeli security stories.

Many Israelis welcomed the bombing raid against Syria, a country that backs Hezbollah and Hamas and has close ties with Iran.

"They were trying the beginnings of a nuclear weapons program, that's pretty clear. Any nuclear facility built by Israel's declared enemies -- and by that I don't mean countries in the Persian Gulf -- is cause for concern," said Joshua Teitelbaum, Senior Research Fellow at the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Tel Aviv University.

Israeli journalists acquiesced to the initial silence over the Syrian raid but believe it was made moot by Netanyahu's boasting and the subsequent CIA briefing.

Olmert's critics suspect that his fighting talk is an attempt at revenge against Barak, who forced Olmert to resign as prime minister over mounting accusations of financial and administrative impropriety. The controversy may also be aimed at pumping up sales for his memoirs. But Israelis are not impressed at the way that closely guarded military secrets can apparently be sacrificed for the sake of a personal vendetta.

Olmert, who served as prime minister from 2006 to 2009, is currently on trial for multiple counts of fraud and bribery and is being investigated for other alleged corrupt practices, including a huge and unsightly real estate development in Jerusalem. His tactics against Barak could see him charged with additional offenses. On Monday, the Ometz citizen's movement for good government called on the attorney general to put Olmert on trial for revealing state secrets.

"It appears that the prospect of selling a lot of books in Israel and selling the rights to an overseas publisher has tempted Olmert once again to open his big mouth -- and for which I'm deeply grateful, I might add," Silverstein said.

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