Middle Israel: Reform, Olmert style

Israel's general lack of strong and stable governments are a national cancer.

October 19, 2006 11:22
amotz asa el 88

amotz asa el 88. (photo credit: )


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Had Martians landed here in the last few days they would have thought that Ehud Olmert was an Israeli version of Gorbachev, Ataturk or Napoleon, a born reformer who upon sight of dated, inefficient, or unjust norms, rules, laws and institutions bravely decries them, and then summarily replaces them, with visions all his own. "It just doesn't work," his confidants chanted tirelessly in their gallant, if patently unconvincing efforts to explain their sudden enthusiasm for the replacement of our parliamentary system with an American-style presidency. Granted, the problems raised by Avigdor Lieberman as he negotiates a possible entry into the coalition are what Middle Israelis have been lamenting for years. To them, Israel's confusion of the legislative and executive branches, and our general lack of strong and stable governments are a national cancer. Where an average ministerial term lasts a mere 16 months, and where the minister himself frequently arrives in his ministry pretty much clueless about its tasks and dilemmas, long-term planning is inevitably erratic, inconsistent, expedient and at the end of the day irrelevant, too. However, if there is anyone who is in no position to discuss any of this malaise, let alone posture as its victims' redeemer, it is Ehud Olmert, who never in his extensive political career actually reformed anything, though he sure did know how to detect the public quest for change, and benefit from it. AS THE youngest lawmaker in the early 1970s, Olmert cleverly teamed up with his political inversion, Yossi Sarid, to jointly crusade against the newly retired general Rehavam Ze'evi, who the two said was linked to organized crime. Ze'evi was of course no Al Capone - in his subsequent career he ran one modest museum and launched one marginal political party - but the idea of playing Eliot Ness was smart, like the idea of doing so in disregard of political delineations. People liked that. This same pattern, of impressing the critical public with what it wants to hear, but at the same time never delivering it the actual goods, accompanied much of Olmert's executive career. Olmert's first executive appointment, as health minister, was made in spring 1990 in the aftermath of Labor's departure from Yitzhak Shamir's last government. Olmert actually hailed from a splinter right-wing party, the Free Center, that had been headed by Menachem Begin's first health minister, Eliezer Shostak, who was an expert on health care. With or without relationship to that, Olmert soon unveiled a plan for the privatization of all governmental hospitals. Sounds good, doesn't it? Anyone who has experienced the chronic overcrowding of our hospitals, and is not afraid of the insertion of market dynamics into the public sector, would agree. The problem was that when Olmert left the Health Ministry two years on, in the wake of Shamir's defeat by Rabin, the reform had yet to be delivered. Curiously enough, Olmert's successor at the Health Ministry, his future ally Haim Ramon, actually did pass a reform there, albeit on a different front, when he standardized health-care deductions and ended the labor unions' scandalous access to the health funds. Considering that this was accomplished with no more parliamentary backing than Olmert had enjoyed as health minister, there was reason to suspect already then that when it came to reform Olmert lacked drive. Still, one can say, what should a politician do in the face of a system that resisted his plan? That's exactly the point: he could have tried to change the system. IN THOSE very early '90s a governmental reform actually was being promoted by an ad-hoc Left-Right coalition that included serious people like Amnon Rubinstein (Shinui), Uriel Lynn (Likud), and David Liba'i (Labor) as well as Binyamin Netanyahu and Yitzhak Rabin, to mention but a few. Olmert was not among them. Never mind now that the bill they ended up passing, the one that had the public elect its prime minister directly on the one hand, but on the other also shackled him to unruly and opportunistic lawmakers, was a fiasco; the point is that had he been a true reformer, Olmert would have been with those whose minds were focused on how to change the system rather than with those who were focused on how to benefit from it. The ultimate test of Olmert's reformism came during his long mayoralty of Jerusalem, and the result was a monumental disappointment. During the decade he spent in Teddy Kollek's big shoes, Olmert had a prime opportunity to experience and affect three major Israeli problems: municipal weakness, Jerusalem's decline, and ultra-Orthodox parasitism. Concerning the latter he literally handed the Zionist enterprise's capital over to non-Zionists, when he ended prematurely his second mayoral term. Olmert never explained to the voters what, actually, compelled him to strand them with his haredi deputy other than his desire to return to national politics and his apparent loss of interest in City Hall. It would have been excusable had he transformed the city, but the fact is that in his days Tel Aviv's stature as Israel's cultural and commercial heartbeat only grew. Worse, those of the capital's residents who were born and raised in it well before Olmert's mayoralty found it increasingly filthy, and its tourist attractions, from the Citadel to the Via Dolorosa, scandalously neglected. One could of course try and argue that at least part of the problem is not about local leadership, but about resources. In those very days, just when he left City Hall, Olmert visited us at the Post and we told him that this newspaper had for years championed reduced national taxation in return for increased local power, including taxation. After being a mayor for a decade, we thought, he might share our displeasure with the Interior Ministry's overbearing presence in Israel's local government - an anomaly invented by British colonialists in order to keep local power at bay. But Olmert disagreed, releasing a fast speech in praise of the Interior Ministry and its bureaucracy. Some of us laughed with him at his thinly veiled desire to become interior minister, a goal that would lose its sting had that agency been dis-empowered. Now no one is laughing. This was quintessential Olmert meeting reform; if it doesn't serve my career aims, why back it? THE SAME attitude surfaced in the face of the Netanyahu market reform. At first, Olmert sensed that the public wanted those reforms, that Sharon wanted them, that the markets welcomed them, and that their success was also the demise of his arch-enemy at the time, Silvan Shalom, who preceded Bibi at the Treasury and deprived Olmert of the Foreign Ministry he so much coveted. Then, when Bibi's reforms began lifting him too high in the polls where Olmert was languishing too low, the industry minister who had backed all those reforms when they were voted in the cabinet and the Knesset suddenly emerged as a Robin Hood, publishing articles calling for greater compassion and public spending. Once again, reform was being weighed not in terms of the national need but in terms of Olmert's personal needs. That is also how electoral and governmental reform were being treated once he found himself in the driver's seat. When he couldn't deliver the Education Ministry to Professor Uriel Reichman, who was promised the post by Sharon, Olmert's people leaked that Reichman - a veteran and genuine reformist - would be a minister in charge of governmental reform. Reichman understood that he was being taken for a ride, politely refused and quietly returned to academia. His vindication soon followed, as Olmert held no discussion in his party, and sought no commitment from his coalition partners, to change the electoral and governmental systems. Now, when Olmert makes all these reform pledges, one must wonder: does Yvette Lieberman honestly believe Olmert's reformist babble, or is he one of those Martians who can't tell a Gorbachev from a Brezhnev, or a Jim Hacker from a Sir Humphrey?

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