Middle Israel: Who can oversee a retreat?

The Palestinians can't deliver and Olmert, some contend, is interested in a negotiation, but not a deal.

September 28, 2007 19:39
amotz asa el 88

amotz asa el 88. (photo credit: )


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Henry Kissinger once said of Charles de Gaulle that when he was in a room with other people, one had to fear that if the Frenchman moved to the window, the room's center of gravity might shift and land everyone in the garden. Judging by the way the last 12 months unfolded, Ehud Olmert might soon feel the same - about himself. Back when the war he so thoughtlessly started finally ended, nearly all predicted his imminent downfall, for three reasons: The politicians weren't with him, the people were against him and his visions had arrived in history's dustbin. One year on, Olmert has pretty well stunned even his admirers with some political resolve, resourcefulness and acrobatics that should be taught in political science schools. First, he snatched Avigdor Lieberman from his natural location on the Right, and then came Labor's improbable election of Ehud Barak, who was much less committed to bolting Olmert's coalition than his rival Ami Ayalon. Now Ayalon himself is joining the government, thus making Olmert's coalition solid and broad, at least by Israeli standards. Add to that the Winograd Commission's foot-dragging on delivering its final report - assessments now are that it won't be out before next spring - and this month's reportedly successful military operation beyond our northern horizon and you understand why the opposition feels so depleted and disillusioned. In Olmert's circle, at the same time, there is euphoria. Suddenly there is talk there that the current Knesset might serve its planned term in its entirety - that is until 2010 - and that the prime minister has shown he indeed learned from his wartime mistakes, now displaying responsibility, balance and poise and making the most of the people with whom he replaced Amir Peretz and Dan Halutz. Even when he makes his regular reports to the president, Olmert finds himself facing a man he himself installed while everyone was eulogizing him. Moreover, talk of Olmert's discredited idea of a massive unilateral withdrawal from the West Bank has given way to talk of his energetic discourse with Mahmoud Abbas. In short, you've got to hand it to Olmert: No one, probably not even he, thought this would be his situation this time last year. And so, buoyed by this windfall of unexpected successes, Olmert is proceeding to his next goal: writing a chapter in our history that will contrast to last summer's, not only in that it will be about peace rather than war, but also because it will be about success rather than debacle; God willing, of course. THE COMMOTION surrounding the peace conclave scheduled for later this fall in Washington can easily be dismissed as much ado about nothing. The Palestinians can't deliver, the US very soon will be absorbed with its presidential election and Olmert, some contend, is interested in a negotiation, but not in a deal. Don't bet on these. Being unable, or unwilling, to deliver didn't prevent the PA from signing deals in the past; an American president is fully empowered until the last day of his term in office; and Olmert's designs, whatever they are, can easily spin out of his control, as they did last year. Still, having straightened his saddle, the postwar Olmert is now whipping his horse to the diplomatic field. Yet recent experience here shows that a good premiership begins with domestic action. The fabled Shimon Peres premiership was crowned by its economic recovery plan; Yitzhak Rabin's started off with massive highway construction and education budgeting; and Ariel Sharon's sailed on an even keel as long as he focused on economic reforms. The problems, for all three, began when they ventured to half-baked diplomatic escapades - Peres with the London Agreement, Rabin with Oslo and Sharon with disengagement. The common denominator among all of them was not that they were good or bad in themselves - the London Agreement would have been a panacea - but that they lacked proper political infrastructure. By contrast, the three's domestic activity impressed the public and consolidated their stature as leaders. Yet Olmert, in his reported promotion of an agreement with a leader as weak as Abbas over goods as precious as Jerusalem, is going in a direction that is likely to dismantle his hard-won coalition; if anything, it is reminiscent of the Ehud Barak premiership, which while high on domestic rhetoric actually delivered on an ambitious diplomatic initiative that soon failed thunderously and led Barak into the worst electoral beating any Israeli was ever dealt. Olmert would do well, therefore, to recall that his successes, with all due respect to their number, were mostly in the realm of political tactics. Strategically, he remains the leader who conceived the failed war on Hizbullah and the even more failed idea of unilateralism. To establish himself as a leader, Olmert would do well at this stage to shift his focus to a domestic reform or project that would mean something to everyone and show he can offer both vision and execution. A diplomatic emphasis can prove even more impracticable, and costly, than last year's military campaign. Surely, as the man whose first prime ministerial actions included a speech to the US Congress and a jog in Hyde Park, chances are low Olmert will resist the temptation of international drama and instead fill his days with trivialities like slashing taxes, expediting Tel Aviv's mass-transit project, constructing a Haifa-Eilat railway, building a dozen new hospitals or reforming the political system. Yet the concessions Olmert is contemplating in the West Bank demand political backbone as well as personal gravitas of the sort de Gaulle brought to the retreat from Algeria. Before withdrawing, De Gaulle brought political reform - which defended him from parliamentary obstruction - and personal stature, as one of the only Frenchmen to emerge heroic from both world wars. This is how he managed to avert civil war even while making a highly contentious move. The same was true for Sharon. Olmert, by contrast, brings to an even more explosive situation neither domestic delivery nor heroic stature. When in a room with his colleagues, no one expects gravity to shift should he go to the window. And anyhow, Olmert is too clever to even come close to the window in the presence of people like Shaul Mofaz, Barak or Avi Dichter; he knows they might throw him out.

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