Editor's Notes: No victors in Olmert's defeat

There is no profound national sense that salvation is now imminent.

david horovitz 224.88 (photo credit:)
david horovitz 224.88
(photo credit: )
Ehud Olmert submitted, reluctantly, to the inevitable on Wednesday evening. But there should be no rejoicing in Israel at his imminent departure. Struggling to survive in a region overflowing with ruthless extremists sniffing relentlessly for signs of vulnerability, Israel can never afford a vacuum at its helm. And least of all today, with Hamas consolidating in Gaza and prevented only by the IDF from replicating its coup in the West Bank, Hizbullah rearmed and doubly dangerous, and an emboldened Iran orchestrating both these pincers while advancing steadily toward a nuclear capability. Olmert was disingenuous to the last, apparently still incapable of internalizing that the mere fact of repeatedly asserting "achievements" does not render them tangible and concrete. He was justified in hailing the progress of his government in several areas, and notably in its economic stewardship - including its allocation of greater resources to the Israel Defense Forces, the reduction in unemployment, and the maintenance of overall financial stability at a time when much of the West is moving into recession. The prime minister was arguably the most astute member of cabinet when it came to understanding economic dilemmas and gauging the most appropriate policies, and his acumen here will be missed. He was right, too, of course, to declare in his bitter but ultimately statesmanlike farewell address that the most crucial task of Israel's governments is to maximize the security of the state and its citizens, ideally by completing a network of normalized relations with immediate neighbors and more distant regional players. But the Olmert government, contrary to what the outgoing prime minister would have us believe, did not defuse the threat from the North, where Hizbullah survived the monthlong 2006 war that defines Olmert's unhappy premiership. In the South, where a fragile "cease-fire" currently holds, Hamas is overtly utilizing its immunity from IDF pursuit to redouble its military capabilities, this week brazenly distributing footage of its rocket-makers hard at work in underground factories, refining its capacity to murder and maim our citizenry at a time and at targets of its choosing. Electing to depart from his mentor Ariel Sharon's assessment that there was more for Israel to lose than to gain by seeking a rapprochement with Syria, Olmert has succeeded so far only in irritating the Bush administration by enabling an unreformed President Bashar Assad's international rehabilitation. And as for what he accurately regards as the critical effort to achieve substantive progress in negotiations with the fading Mahmoud Abbas's Palestinian Authority, Olmert's insistently repeated claim that the two sides are closer than ever to a deal simply cannot be reconciled with the reports coming out of the negotiations - the sense of deadlock, of frustration, and of gaps on key issues, notably but not exclusively Jerusalem, that remain resolutely unbridged. AMONG THE more unfortunate aspects of Olmert's demise is that he has indeed forged a particularly strong relationship with George W. Bush, who is in turn a particularly warm and committed defender of Israel. And the prime minister has been correct to stress, as he did again on Wednesday, that the Bush presidency was an ideal support structure upon which to try to build a permanent accord with the Palestinians. Olmert has tried to play up to the maximum Bush's ostensible sympathy for an Israel whose permanent dimensions extend beyond its 1967 borders some distance into the West Bank - as based on the 2004 presidential letter to Sharon in which Bush wrote of "new realities on the ground" rendering it "unrealistic to expect that the outcome of final-status negotiations will be a full and complete return to the armistice lines of 1949." And there can be no doubting the accuracy of the prime minister's assertion, in an interview with this newspaper in January, that Israel's other world leader friends, when they contemplate Israel's future, do so firmly on the basis of 1967 rather than "67-plus." The recent stream of eminent personages who passed through Jerusalem - including Nicolas Sarkozy, Barack Obama and Gordon Brown - have unanimously trumpeted their unshakable support for Israel, their belief that a peace deal with the Palestinians is close at hand... and their conviction that it must be based on the 1967 parameters. In the Knesset last Monday, for instance, Brown urged Israel to seize the opportunity for a peaceful two-state solution "based on 1967 borders... alongside a peaceful, democratic and territorially viable state of Palestine that accepts you as its friend and partner... with Jerusalem the capital for both," a "just and agreed settlement for refugees," and "Israel freezing, and withdrawing from, settlements..." Understandably then, Olmert wants to make the most of the Bush term and vowed on Wednesday to continue, in his final weeks in office, to work for substantive progress on the Palestinian front - clinging to the prospect that some kind of "shelf agreement" or document of "joint understandings" can be formulated in the near future. What Olmert must guard against, as he inevitably seeks to snatch some kind of diplomatic "victory" and legacy from the jaws of his bitter personal and political defeat, is the temptation to approve concessions that he would have rejected in different personal circumstances - the temptation, that is, to replicate the alleged trait that has prompted his political demise: straying beyond the parameters of what is appropriate, and then attempting to finesse the departure with lawyerly silkiness and sleight. THE PEOPLE of Israel did not, I think, heave a collective sigh of relief at the sight of Olmert coming publicly to terms with the impossibility of his situation on Wednesday night. While some may have rejoiced, more, I suspect, viewed the spectacle in sorrow, as an inevitable necessity that the prime minister had accepted a little belatedly but, mercifully, had accepted without the nauseating resort to hysterical counterattack indulged in by former president Moshe Katsav. There is certainly no profound national sense that now, with Olmert going, salvation is imminent. Tzipi Livni's main claim on the public's affection appears to be that she is not Olmert - that she is, rather, a paragon of personal propriety, quietly conscientious, resolutely undazzling. "Mr. Security" Shaul Mofaz, meanwhile, is stained as a former chief of General Staff and defense minister by the strategic failures revealed in the Second Lebanon War and carries the rare distinction of having impetuously bolted the Likud for Kadima even as his personal plea to Likud members to stick with the party was en route in the mail. And if it is Binyamin Netanyahu who is ultimately heading back toward the Prime Minister's Office, he is not borne on waves of national enthusiasm, but benefiting, rather, from the dismal cycle of Israeli politics in which the strategy discredited longest ago becomes most popular merely by virtue of the passage of time: hanging tough with Netanyahu gave way to negotiation with Barak and then unilateralism with Sharon and Olmert, and round we may well go again. CONCEDING DEFEAT even as he railed against it, Olmert insisted on Wednesday night that he could provide "satisfactory" answers to all the accusations that have been levelled against him. He complained, further, that as prime minister he had been "below the law" - uniquely denied the opportunity to defend himself, denied the presumption of innocence. It is hard to square this assertion of injured innocence with the delaying tactics followed by his lawyers, the obfuscations and resort to silence under police questioning employed by some of his colleagues, the content of the leaked transcripts (that we should never have seen) of his own evasive responses under questioning, and the fact that a prime minister enjoys unique access to any and every communications channel via which he might have chosen to champion his integrity. The assertion that this is a case of justice preempted rings false. The public has been demonstrably prepared to maintain a presumption of innocence when corruption allegations swirled around a succession of prime ministers. Olmert, by contrast, has been impelled to the political exit by a combination of absent public faith in his expertise and the sheer accumulation of legal scandal and distraction - the mistrust engendered by his deficient stewardship of the war against Hizbullah compounded by a heartfelt public concern that he could not possibly devote the vital 100 percent attention to his job while simultaneously juggling his daunting array of legal challenges. Nonetheless, if the welter of accusation that has mounted against him proves to be more molehill than mountain, the law enforcement authorities, and by extension the media, will have to defend themselves against the charge that they helped hound a democratically elected prime minister from office. Olmert said on Wednesday that he hoped his case, and his fate, might come to mark a turning point - galvanizing a redressing of "balance." His successor would do well to look overseas for inspiration, and might consider adopting a formula under which the investigation of certain accusations relating to the period before a politician becomes prime minister is suspended until after his or her term in office. But his successor, of course, will largely be preoccupied from day one, as was Olmert, with retaining power, in a system that spits out all but the thickest-skinned operators and then conspires to deny them the capacity to govern effectively. Olmert's unhappy period of governance is now drawing to an end. Unfortunately for Israel, the challenges he had such mixed success in confronting, and the unworkable political system in which he was required to operate, are all still with us.