Bibi Can't Lose

It's Benjamin Netanyahu's Israel. All of his rivals just live in it.

It's one of Washington's worst kept secrets: President Barack Obama's administration would prefer Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to lose the Israeli elections in January 2013. Netanyahu is not only too hawkish on the Palestinian issue and Iran for the White House's comfort, he has the added burden of a fraught personal relationship with Obama -- cemented by his perceived public endorsement of Mitt Romney in the U.S. presidential election.

In theory, a Netanyahu defeat is not beyond the realm of possibility. He is popular in Israel but not loved, trusted as prime minister but not revered. His command in the polls is steady -- essentially undisturbed since he took office in 2009 -- but not overwhelming. He appears to have suffered somewhat from the inconclusive outcome of the recent military operation in Gaza -- though if he lost any votes, they were to the right rather than the center, meaning that his electoral bloc remains intact. Among his biggest assets is a lack of viable alternatives: The leaders of the two largest parties in the current opposition are either too unpopular (Kadima's Shaul Mofaz) or too inexperienced (Labor's Shelly Yacimovich) to credibly challenge him.

Little wonder, therefore, that eyes have been fixed on potential new entrants to the political arena -- or, as is often the case in Israeli politics, recycled entrants. The return of former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has been the most anticipated of these political earthquakes: Merely four years after leaving office under indictment for corruption charges (of which he was largely acquitted, pending appeal) Olmert appears to be the only man capable of mounting a serious challenge to Netanyahu. In truth, however, his chances of defeating Netanyahu remain lower than wishful thinkers in Washington may like to believe. His imminent announcement on whether he runs is therefore unlikely to alter the outcome of the elections.

The case for an Olmert candidacy has been threefold. First, he has the gravitas and experience that no other opposition leader offers. Although his premiership was marred by public criticism of his leadership in the 2006 Lebanon war (culminating in the Winograd Commission report), he remains one of the most experienced leaders in the Israeli political system. He has led Israel to war in Gaza, like Netanyahu, and handled the country's most tightly held strategic secrets. In contrast to other opposition leaders -- journalists-turned-politicians Yacimovich or Yair Lapid of the newly formed Yesh Atid ("There is a Future") party -- he can credibly challenge Netanyahu on the national security front.

Olmert can also use his foreign affairs experience to capitalize on Netanyahu's electoral vulnerabilities. Olmert maintained a close relationship with the United States during his term, a clear shortcoming of Netanyahu in the wake of Obama's reelection. On dealing with the Iranian nuclear program, Olmert enjoys the trust and support of many in the security establishment, in contrast to the near revolt against Netanyahu's leadership by several former security chiefs. Unlike Netanyahu, Olmert provides a clear vision for trying to resolve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, and negotiated in earnest with Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas. Though the Israeli public is highly skeptical of the chances of peace in the near future, it remains supportive, in theory, of a two-state solution.

All that may be true, but it will count for nothing if Olmert can't forge a governing majority in the Knesset. The second argument for Olmert running has been, accordingly, that he alone has the ability to forge post-election alliances with members of Netanyahu's right-wing/religious bloc. And yet, this argument was less convincing from the start.

It's true that Olmert, a politician of considerable wit and charm, maintains close relationships with many figures who are now in Netanyahu's camp. One of them is Aryeh Der'i, a leader of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, who himself returned to politics after serving a prison sentence for bribery. Another is Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman -- a leader who offers a mix of inflammatory, nearly xenophobic, rhetoric, but appears pragmatic on some issues of substance. Both Der'i and Lieberman have joined centrist coalitions in the past -- and some assumed Olmert could lure them away from Netanyahu's coalition.

But while Olmert's political skill sets him apart from other opposition leaders, it does not provide him a path to victory on its own. There are significant political obstacles in splitting Netanyahu's allies from him: Der'i, for his part, shares his party's leadership with the ultra-hawkish Eli Yishai, and the final say in Shas belongs to Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the 92-year old patron of the party. Shas's electorate, moreover, is firmly right-wing and clearly prefers Netanyahu to any centrist candidate. Nor would Lieberman opt for a centrist government if given the choice, as he proved by forming a pre-election alliance with Netanyahu. For both Shas and Lieberman, a centrist coalition would be palatable only if a right-wing coalition is numerically impossible. In other words, to win the post-election coalition building, Olmert would have to beat Netanyahu in the ballot box.

The third and final argument in favor of Olmert running was that he could potentially steal the votes of moderate right-wing voters. There's some logic to the idea: Given Netanyahu's shift to the right through his electoral alliance with Lieberman and the very right-wing list produced this week in the primaries of his Likud party, there appears to be room in the center for a serious challenge. If enough moderate right-wing voters find the Likud's right-wing shift too distasteful, they may prefer a moderate like Olmert.

Indeed, if Olmert could attract enough right-wing voters to the center, bringing Netanyahu's bloc below 60 (of 120) Knesset members, all bets would be off on the coalition building process. Polling, however, has not been kind to this theory: The right-wing bloc has appeared poised to win around 65 seats throughout the campaign, and the result was not much changed when surveys asked about a hypothetical Olmert run. Nevertheless, an Olmert-led centrist coalition remains the only plausible path to a Netanyahu defeat.

And even if Olmert were to announce his intention to run, his legal troubles may still come back to haunt him. The State Prosecutor's office has announced that it will appeal his partial acquittal. A court decision on a separate corruption case against him is still pending, and legal challenge would likely be mounted against his appointment as prime minister even if he were to win the elections. Many voters on the center-left, moreover, will find Olmert's legal troubles unsavory (even in his partial acquittal, the judges' language in describing Olmert's actions was harsh). Yacimovich has already attacked Olmert on this front, saying that anyone who backs his political return "supports the destruction of the [political] system."

Netanyahu, in other words, remains the heavy favorite to form the next Israeli government regardless of the jockeying in the center. And yet, despite these obstacles, Olmert has been eager to return to the political game. He knows well the cardinal rule of Israeli politics articulated by Ariel Sharon -- himself, once a disgraced minister of defense who climbed his way back to the top of Israel's leadership. Israeli politics, Sharon noted, are like a Ferris Wheel: Sometimes you find yourself on top and sometime below, but the trick is to stay on the wheel. Olmert himself, one should remember, first ascended to the prime minister's office in unlikely circumstances, after it was thrust upon him following Sharon's debilitating stroke. 

Should Olmert decide to re-enter the political game, we will be in for a contentious, perhaps dramatic campaign. Those in Washington hoping for a Netanyahu defeat, however, are likely to be disappointed.


National Security

The Art of the Deal

Why the CIA needs a diplomat, not a spy, to lead it.

With the abrupt departure of Director David Petraeus, the revolving door on the CIA's seventh floor continues to spin: The average tenure of the agency's last five leaders has been less than 20 months.

The timing of this leadership upheaval could not have come at a worse time for the agency. The CIA once ruled the operational and analytic fiefdoms of the U.S. Intelligence Community with near-monopolistic control. But bureaucratic reorganization and the expansion of military intelligence during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars brought an end to a half-century of preeminence. The steady diminution of the CIA's influence over the past decade echoes the travails of Microsoft -- the spy agency is weakened, beset by competitors, and facing an uncertain future.

The paradox of this post-9/11 reality is that the CIA is now more mission-focused than at any time since the height of the Cold War. Its aggressive, collaborative prosecution of terrorist networks has been wildly successful and saved American lives here and abroad. This was by design, aided in large part by reform efforts to eliminate intelligence agency stovepipes, force information sharing, and enhance paramilitary capabilities. The results have borne out the wisdom of these and other steps to remake the Intelligence Community.  

And yet, the CIA's traditional primacy has taken a number of body blows. The creation of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and its "community" superstructure in 2004 abolished the CIA director's authority beyond Langley and foreign stations. Increased military intelligence collection and operations overseas sometimes lacked coordination and caused confusion in the field as to who was in charge. The proliferation of new intelligence and analysis offices, such as the one within the Department of Homeland Security, created rival (and welcome, some would contend) judgments and estimates. Even inside the White House, the president has appointed his own trusted homeland security and counterterrorism deputy, John Brennan, to ride point on pressing security threats. With remarkable swiftness, the CIA director was crowded off of his privileged perch as the president's chief intelligence advisor. 

Those reportedly on the shortlist of qualified candidates to replace Petraeus possess the intelligence expertise traditionally sought to run the agency. For the next CIA head to excel, however, more than a mastery of our nation's intelligence apparatus is required. Bureaucratic tug-of-wars and overseas challenges have rewritten the chief spymaster's job description. The next director must have the skills of a hard-nosed negotiator and the acumen of a Washington insider if the agency is to reclaim lost ground. Being an experienced clandestine operative, veteran intelligence manager, or seasoned congressional overseer is no longer sufficient. The CIA needs a power broker, because only a director with clout, someone who is well-versed in the art of the deal, will be able to win the fights brewing within the administration's national security team.

In the intelligence universe, the "battlefield" is always evolving and the lines of engagement are in constant flux, particularly when it comes to transnational threats like terrorism. Clear parameters of authority and operational responsibility are essential in order to locate, track, monitor, and -- if need be -- arrest or attack the enemy. Bringing this cohesion to the Intelligence Community has been a necessary and at times painful process -- and one that still continues today.

The Defense Department moved aggressively after 9/11 to ramp up counterterrorism collection, and it expanded its footprint further after the 2003 Iraq invasion. A more robust, forward-leaning military counterterrorism strategy was needed, but efforts were not always coordinated with the CIA and foreign missions and information were not always corroborated and vetted before making it into the national policy chain. Most notably, the insertion into senior policymaker briefings of faulty Defense Department analysis claiming an operational relationship between Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda promoted a linkage that the Intelligence Community did not believe existed, and buttressed calls for military action. Notwithstanding efforts to resolve such issues, reducing the tension between defense and intelligence collection efforts overseas remains unfinished business for the incoming director.

The operational command of missile-equipped drones is another flashpoint between the intelligence and defense communities. Who exactly controls these assets -- the lethal point of the intelligence spear, if you will -- both inside and outside military areas of operations? There have been vocal critics of the "militarization" of the CIA in recent years, but similar concerns exist over the military's mission creep into the civilian agency's traditional clandestine portfolio.

And what of the growing, long-term threat of cyber attack against the homeland? The Pentagon created U.S. Cyber Command in 2009 to protect military networks, and similar efforts are underway at the Department of Homeland Security to secure civilian networks. With the National Security Agency carrying out both Defense Department combat support and Intelligence Community duties, the question remains as to how the responsibilities for cyber operations beyond America's borders are to be distributed among the key players. If the post-9/11 axiom that the best defense is a good offense remains valid, then the outcome of this ongoing policy debate will be consequential for both the CIA's prerogatives and the protection of the nation's cyber infrastructure.  

The negotiation challenges facing the next director will not all be inside the Beltway. Strong foreign partners have and will continue to be the backbone of overseas intelligence operations. The new head of the CIA will be asking increasingly skittish -- and, in some cases, suspect -- foreign services to do more in moving against terrorist networks and hunting down operatives, as well as to cooperate on other shared security priorities. Hammering out these sensitive particulars requires the deft hand of a savvy and respected broker.

CIA director is arguably the most thankless job in Washington. The agency workforce is highly-motivated, and their individual and collective efforts to protect the United States are shrouded in secrecy -- until, that is, there is a leaked failure. And the agency continues to pay a price in the public's mind for past missteps, both real and imagined. The operational tempo will remain high at Langley and in the field for the foreseeable future. CIA employees will be looking for a leader who will not only support the agenda of the Intelligence Community as a whole and work collaboratively with his or her defense counterparts, but also be an effective advocate for the CIA at the interagency negotiation table -- someone who can help restore the agency's centrality in carrying out the nation's most sensitive operations.