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During the first few months of his premiership, Ehud Olmert would often say in interviews that he constantly asked himself, "What would Arik do in this situation?" He doesn't seem to be have asked that question over the last few weeks.
The reports on former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's worsening situation and his move into intensive care couldn't have come at a more ironic timing, when Israel is being plunged once again into the Lebanese quagmire.
For many years Sharon's name was synonymous in Israel with "the Lebanese mud" and the ill-fated 1982 war that stretched out into an 18-year sojourn in the Land of the Cedars was seen by many as the reason that the deposed defense minister would never realize his dream of becoming prime minister.
But by a quirk of fate, he defeated Ehud Barak, the man who finally extricated the IDF from Lebanon, and went on to become one of the most popular prime ministers in Israeli history.
Now, seven months into his stroke-induced departure from the public stage, some sources, including a few around Olmert, are quietly blaming Sharon for Israel's inaction over Hizbullah's rapid armament and entrenchment. If not for his "Lebanon trauma," the thinking goes, we wouldn't have had to wait for the capture of two soldiers as a excuse for smashing the Hizbullah infrastructure.
Whatever the flaws in this argument, the fact remains that Olmert has been no where near as assiduous in keeping his predecessor in mind these past few weeks as he was during his first six months in office. It's almost as if he's afraid of invoking a ghost.
All the members of the band of three that led Israel into Lebanon have departed. Prime Minister Menachem Begin died 15 years ago, Chief of Staff Rafael Eitan drowned last year in a bizarre accident and now Sharon is fast fading from memory, the reports on his medical situation pushed to the back of newspapers.
In 1982, all three were veterans of the struggle to establish Israel and maintain its security during the early decades. All were divisive figures, but at least commanded respect from allies and rivals for their extensive experience.
By contrast, at the time of the last Lebanon war, Olmert was a backbench MK with a reputation for trouble-making, Defense Minister Amir Peretz hadn't yet decided whether to leave farming and go into local Sderot politics, and Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Dan Halutz was finishing his degree in economics at Tel Aviv University when he decided to return to active duty as a fighter pilot after four years away from the IDF.
One of the last things he did before returning to the service was take part in a demonstration supporting Sharon, who was under intense public criticism after the war in Lebanon bogged down amid the Sabra and Shatilla refugee camp massacres.
Twenty-three years after Halutz reenlisted, Sharon deposed Chief of Staff Moshe Ya'alon who had expressed misgivings over the disengagement plan, and appointed Halutz to replace him, the first time an air force chief rose to the top IDF post.
Ehud Olmert might be Sharon's official successor, but it was Halutz who was hand-picked for what Sharon saw as the most critical job.
Many in his circle believed at the time that Halutz was being anointed as the real heir apparent, to follow him after Sharon's retirement towards the end of the decade, after another term in office. Ultimately, two strokes ruined the master plan, but Halutz has quickly emerged as the senior figure of authority in the post-Sharon era.
Despite being the only unelected member of the defense troika, and the one supposed to be carrying out the orders, Halutz appears in public as mentor to both of his political masters.
Despite Olmert and Peretz receiving their highest approval ratings ever in recent polls, Halutz still overtakes them with ease, and is now unquestionably the country's "responsible grown-up," safeguarding the nation from its leaders' inexperience.
Halutz's brief hospitalization on Friday night with stomach cramps will probably only endear him even more to the public. He was, by the way, given a clean bill of health.
But it's not only their lack of a military resume that puts Halutz ahead of Peretz and Olmert. While the two politicians have refused almost resolutely to give interviews since the beginning of the crisis in Gaza a month ago - Olmert especially limiting his appearances to well choreographed meetings and speeches - Halutz has remained outgoing and open to the press, only this weekend giving two extensive interviews to the two big Hebrew newspapers. He's been visible at all the fronts, meeting soldiers and civilians, and explaining Israel's policies, almost as if he was in charge of making that policy, not carrying it out.
Halutz's public success is partly thanks to the best PR expert currently in the business, IDF Spokeswoman Brig.-Gen. Miri Regev, herself the subject of a glowing profile in this week's Yediot Aharonot, but it's mainly due to his own confident personality. Halutz knows where he wants to go and with keen political instincts, has identified the leadership vacuum from which Israel is currently suffering.
As a soldier in a democracy, perhaps he shouldn't be so eager to push himself into that empty space, but now it's clear why Sharon was attracted to him. He's a sophisticated, more suave version of the old Arik - a man who thinks he knows what's best for Israel's future and isn't afraid to say so.
Olmert, Peretz and their cabinet colleagues might not be ideal leaders for a country at war, but they're nothing if not astute politicians and have been quick to realize the challenge Halutz is posing to their authority. That could have well been a factor in their decision on Thursday not to accept his plans for widening the ground offensive in southern Lebanon. (Shades of Arik again?) But they were still sufficiently in awe of the Chief of the General Staff to authorize his calling up three reserve divisions, giving him the option of carrying out his plans in the near future.
From a political perspective, the cabinet's vote is actually to Halutz's benefit. So far the criticism of the way the IDF is handling the conflict has stopped at the generals on the northern front. If Israel emerges victorious from this war, Halutz will get most of the public acclaim. If the outcome is less than successful, he will always be able to remind us that he was in favor of a different strategy, but as an officer in uniform, had no choice but to bow to the politicians' wishes.
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