(photo credit: )
This is the third speech in recent months. [Prime Minister Ehud] Olmert gave the first on the night of his victory, the second when his government was sworn in, and the third at Ben-Gurion's grave on the anniversary of his death.
All three are good speeches. Committed to peace, public courage, willingness to extend a hand in agreement, and recognition of the need to pay a price.
It would appear that the former Likud member who defied Menahem Begin on the Right, who voted against the Camp David Accords in 1978, who believed for years in a greater Israel, has understood the demographic problem and undergone a metamorphosis. As Ariel Sharon's deputy, he was one of the leaders of the unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, if not its main engineer, and now, as prime minister, he appears to be leading the Left's traditional policy of two states, founding a Palestinian state on most of the West Bank, and doing what many Kadima supporters expected - that a man of the Right would divide the country.
This didn't happen after the first two speeches. Very different things did. The characterization of Mahmoud Abbas as an irrelevant leader. The policy in the territories - roadblocks, checkpoints, Palestinians working in Israel, freedom of movement inside the territories - all these were made harsher than before. Instead of making a valiant effort, as he promised, to start intensive negotiations with Abbas and his people ahead of establishing a permanent border between two peoples, [Olmert] wasted his time in negotiations over the meeting with the Palestinian leader itself, claiming - and then taking it back - that the head of the Palestinian Authority was not open to talks, etc., etc. The disappointment in Olmert spread, and the general feeling was that he was not "supplying the goods" - not diplomatically, not socially, and not on security.
The kidnapping of soldiers in the South and the North pushed him into a decision on an extensive [military] option in the South and a war in the North, but he had an exit policy. In neither case did he have the support of the public, who wanted to believe that the problem of the abductees could be solved Entebbe-style, thirty years afterwards. But Entebbe wasn't reenacted, the price was heavy, and after some twenty days of adulation the belief in him and his colleagues began to fade, until it reached lower levels than any previous prime minister had known. The world sees him as a weak leader, the Arab world sees him as a weak leader, his colleagues hold him in contempt, and the Israeli public has lost faith in him. This, without the cloud of corruption, investigated for months, that follows him wherever he goes.
There is no doubt that political survival is a central concern for Olmert. It seems that it is his first priority. Moving to the Right did him no good. The hints that Israel would know what to do on Iran might have excited his listeners, but didn't make Israelis feel any better. Neither the promise that as long as he is prime minister, he won't agree to give up the Golan Heights, nor his unnecessary decision to bring Avigdor Lieberman's Israel Beitenu into the coalition, strengthened Kadima's public image or his own position. The resounding Democratic victory in both the US House of Representatives and the Senate weakened him further, and every day he reads the leaks from the Baker-Hamilton report that hint of direct talks that could open soon between the US, Syria, and Iran. He understood that [US President George W.] Bush will demand that he address the Palestinian issue just as he understands that the Quartet demands of the nascent Palestinian government will be much more moderate than the demands placed on [PA Prime Minister Ismail] Haniyeh's government a few months ago.
With all this in the background, Olmert stood on Ben-Gurion's grave to make his third speech. If only he's serious this time. If only he would move, as I recently suggested, towards a final agreement that follows the Geneva Accords, or find another way to reach an historic deal, Meretz-Yahad will raise their hands in favor, even from our modest place in the opposition.