Analysis: Olmert chooses his enemies

One cannot be too careful in choosing one's enemies, Oscar Wilde once said.

By
January 20, 2006 02:32

 
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One cannot be too careful in choosing one's enemies, Oscar Wilde once said, but Ehud Olmert still seemed to be craftily rewriting his list of enemies this week, adding one ideological foe, deleting one political nemesis, highlighting one electoral rival and ignoring one problematic ally, until he met the enemy he would rather forget: terror. The ideological foe is Hebron's Jewish riffraff. In confronting the juveniles whose respect for Israel's laws, orders and soldiers is not much higher than Azmi Bishara's, Olmert has risked little and gained a lot. The acting prime minister gained by emerging from Ariel Sharon's large shadow and assertively doing his own thing, and he lost only what negligible respect he may have still enjoyed in the political moonscape that sprawls to the right of Avigdor Lieberman. At the same time, Olmert has effectively marked Labor as his main electoral rival, Likud's challenge as negligible and Shimon Peres's escapades as tolerable. In itself, Olmert's targeting of the illegal outposts is first of all about governance, as the restoration of Israel's authority in places like Hebron and Amona has become imperative. Still, everyone understood - certainly Olmert - that this confrontation is also fraught with political context and diplomatic subtext. Politically, Olmert's provocation of the Right signaled that now, with Labor's and Likud's candidate lists unveiled, he is more concerned about the former's challenge to Kadima. While Binyamin Netanyahu has failed to recruit even one new face to his prospective faction and at the same time met difficulties even keeping intact his already shrunken team, Labor produced a team that even its enemies must respect. With Ami Ayalon, Avishay Braverman, Isaac Herzog and Yuli Tamir as potential candidates for the Defense, Finance, Foreign and Education portfolios, Peretz is now surrounded by people who arguably offset his own drawbacks and, at any rate, are difficult dismiss as lackluster, inexperienced or demagogic. Olmert is evidently figuring that Peretz's team is better equipped to impress potential Kadima voters than Moshe Kahlon, Gilad Erdan, Gideon Sa'ar or Silvan Shalom, who top Likud's Knesset list. Diplomatically, Olmert's confrontation with the far-right offered a reminder to those abroad who may have forgotten - or never known - that he was a disengager even before Ariel Sharon. With Gaza's Jewish ghettos gone, no place now shoulders the kind of futile and daily Palestinian-Israeli friction that the disengagement idea seeks to undo more than Hebron. Still, there is a yawning gap between this attitude and what Peres claimed in Washington this week, that Sharon "hoped to end the conflict." Yes, in the abstract sense even Baruch Marzel wants to end the conflict. Peres, however, was insinuating that Sharon's epiphany included an adoption of the Oslo view that peace depended mainly on Israeli concessions, and would be obtained through an agreement that could be reached fairly quickly. Peres also repeatedly said throughout this decade's violence, that he still believes in the imminent emergence of a New Middle East. To this newspaper he said that "disengagement is Oslo," stubbornly clinging to the land-for-peace formula and denying that the public, like Sharon, backed disengagement because it addressed Oslo's damage. The fact is that Sharon strongly disagreed with all this, and sought instead demographic separation, military barriers and long-term interim arrangements. That is also what Kadima's former Laborites, Haim Ramon and Dalia Itzik, thought when they became the avid separation-fence fans that Peres never became. That is certainly what the centrist masses think when they tell pollsters they will vote Kadima, which they see as an alliance between those who despaired of Greater Israel and those who despaired of land for peace. That is what Sharon-aide Eyal Arad meant when he told foreign reporters "forget land for peace." That is also what Olmert and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni evidently thought when they said that future final-status talks with the Palestinian Authority will have to follow its disarming of terror groups, as specified in the road map. Only those who remain unaware that Hamas is headed toward massive electoral success, that its "moderate" pronouncements are but smokescreens and that Mahmoud Abbas will join Women in Green before he disarms Hamas can compare Olmert's and Livni's caution with Peres's inability to part with his peace-in-our-time reflexes. While the extent to which Peres cleared his Washington pronouncements with Olmert remains unclear, there is plenty of clarity concerning Olmert's reasons for dispatching Peres to Condoleezza Rice: He needed to placate him after crowning Livni as his No. 2. Still, with Olmert's biggest electoral enemy - terror - arriving Thursday so typically unannounced, Peres might very soon emerge as Kadima's major electoral liability. Nothing is more dangerous for Olmert than the combination of Islamic Jihad attacks in the streets and Peres daydreaming on CNN. FDR is said to have once told Winston Churchill "it is fun to be in the same decade with you." Practically every Israeli leader that ever lived has found himself, at one point or another, not only in the same decade, but also in a political twin bed, with Peres. Not all, however, found it fun, as Olmert may recall, if not from his first ministerial years, when then deputy prime minister Peres was a constant thorn in Yitzhak Shamir's side, then at least from Peres's initial failure to back Olmert's succession of Sharon. If he doesn't somehow handle Peres, Olmert may soon find that the enemy he has written off, Netanyahu, can still fight effectively, especially when he has so little left to lose, particularly when it comes to negative campaigning, and all the more so when it comes to Peres-bashing.

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