Analysis: The prerogatives of an unpopular PM

Olmert can pursue the policy he believes in, because his polls aren't ikely to look good in any event.

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September 6, 2007 01:32
3 minute read.
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"I'm an unpopular prime minister, the polls say so. I think they are right," Prime Minister Ehud Olmert admitted back in March. As a result of this unpopularity, there have been consistent fears by those on both sides of the political spectrum that he would take dramatic steps - either toward war or for peace - to boost his popularity. Nevertheless, despite banner front page headlines to the contrary, Olmert has not bargained away the entire West Bank and Israel's security for a photo-op with Mahmoud Abbas on the White House lawn - the dramatic "peace" option. Nor has he launched a smashing incursion into Gaza as a result of continuous provocations from there - the "war" option. Following Monday's firing of a Kassam rocket into the courtyard of a Sderot day-care center, an action that traumatized a dozen kids, their parents and the country, Olmert very well could have played to popular opinion by dramatically sending tanks into Gaza or giving the order to launch a blistering aerial strike of the Strip. He also could have won points with a frustrated public by cutting off the utilities that Israel provides Gaza. But he did neither. According to officials in his office, Olmert doesn't believe that either move would be particularly effective. A huge military operation would not necessarily end the rocket fire, would entail Israeli casualties and could severely complicate Israel's international position. And cutting utilities, he believes, would be akin to collective punishment and also bring international wrath to bear on Jerusalem. In the current atmosphere of wanting to do something, anything, against the Kassam rocket fire, either option would have increased Olmert's domestic popularity. Yet he chose neither - the prerogative of an unpopular prime minister. Olmert need not play to public emotions because he knows that at this point - at least until after the Winograd Committee's final report - whatever he does will not bring him back into the public's favor. As a result, Olmert can pursue the policy he believes in, because his polls - at least for a while - are unlikely to look good in any event. This prerogative of the unpopular prime minister is the twin brother of another interesting phenomenon being played out right now: the strength of Olmert's coalition - and it is presently a strong coalition, nobody is bringing it down - stems from the weakness of its composite parts. Neither Israel Beiteinu, the Gil Pensioners Party nor Labor has an interest in doing anything to bring down the current government, out of the realization that while Kadima is likely to get clobbered at the ballot box, they are not likely to fare much better themselves. It is relatively easy for opposition politicians and even those inside Olmert's party - especially those with an eye on his job - to call for an all-out invasion of Gaza, or to send the tanks in or for more targeted killings, because this plays well with the public. In the end, as Olmert learned from last summer's war, the mood of the country may urge him into strong military action. But if it is not well thought out and planned, he will be left holding the bag. The prevalent sense inside the Prime Minister's Office these days is very much that there are no simple answers to the Kassam rocket fire, that Israel has faced similar threats in the past (Kiryat Shmona, for instance) and that the answer is neither to do anything hasty nor to run away. Rather, Olmert's preferred option is to continue keeping the pressure on the terrorist organizations through targeted attacks and quick in-and-out incursions. Everyone realizes that "something needs to be done" about the Kassam rockets. But Olmert, through his reticence over the last few days, has shown that he also realizes that it is necessary to think long and hard about what to do, so as not to take an action that might make a bad situation even worse. Olmert was criticized after the Second Lebanon War for acting too hastily, for letting his heart trump his mind in the decision to go to war. His challenge now, however, will be in keeping the internalization of this message from turning into all-out paralysis.

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