Comment: Take the wheel, Mr. PM

Olmert has yet to assert his leadership via the swift resolution of problems.

olmert 88 (photo credit: )
olmert 88
(photo credit: )
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert can be excused if during his flight back home, the 21 standing ovations he received while addressing the joint session of Congress in Washington were still ringing in his ears. Let's hope that the weekend was enough to get over the jet-lag and to clear his head. The list of urgent things to do is long and they all have one thing in common - Olmert has yet to assert his leadership via the swift resolution of problems. It's two months since the elections and he still has not completed the coalition negotiations. The fact that he has a parliamentary majority doesn't excuse the inept way the talks with United Torah Judaism have been dragging on. There still is no clear proposal on the table despite the differences between the two parties being very clear. Instead of leaving the deal-making to underlings, Olmert could personally resolve the issue in a few hours of intensive talks, and that would be that. UTJ has no internal democratic process, the rabbis just get together and give the OK. It's going to take a few hundred million shekels in children's allowances and some concessions on state and religion, but Olmert obviously wants the deal. Otherwise he wouldn't have insisted on keeping UTJ MK Ya'acov Litzman as chairman of the Knesset Finance Committee. Which takes us on to the next outstanding matter; the fact that, with May coming to a close, we still have no 2006 state budget. Litzman is not the only key to passing the budget; Kadima's main coalition partners, Labor, is still wobbling. Even if a majority is eventually secured, Olmert can't allow even one coalition MK to rebel during the second and third readings. He has to pass a clear message on to Labor chairman Amir Peretz: If he wants his term as defense minister to be a success, he'd better make sure that his backbenchers remain in line. So far, discipline seems to be a foreign concept for the Olmert cabinet. Take the most burning security issue, the chaos in the Palestinian Authority. Ministers Peretz, Shimon Peres and Tzipi Livni all seem to have their own policies regarding PA President Mahmoud Abbas and the Hamas government. Meanwhile, Israel has been changing tack every day, from total boycott to the opening of crossings and moving medical supplies, to Thursday's decision to transfer arms to Abbas's personal guard. Olmert has to establish a clear hierarchy through which he will implement a single policy. Instead of reacting to events, he should set a clear set of limits and expectations vis-a-vis the PA. One that won't have to be amended daily. The same sort of mixed messages are emanating over the future of the settlements. Is the government planning to cut all construction beyond the Green Line and has it decided on the extent of future withdrawals, or is there still considerable flexibility regarding the territory that Israel hopes to retain? The warm hugs from US President George W. Bush didn't obscure the fact that the realignment plan is still years from implementation. Meanwhile, Olmert still has to deal with the ongoing investment in the settlements, the legal challenge of the outposts slated for eviction and the plight of those Gush Katif settlers who have still not received compensation or suitable housing and employment. Olmert would do well to dismantle the Disengagement Authority and set up a new bureau within the Prime Minister's Office with wide-ranging authority to address all the settlers' issues, past, present and future. Only in this way can he maintain control over the situation and hope to reach some kind of dialogue with the settlers. The feeling right now is that Olmert has yet to come to grips with any of the pressing issues and has left things mainly to his ministers. They might be nominally in charge, but the prime minister should take ultimate responsibility, especially a new one like Olmert who has yet to establish his credentials. This is one captain who shouldn't leave the wheel to a midshipman. He shouldn't be leaving the ongoing tragedy of the health basket to the finance and health ministers. Cancer patients are dying and the prime minister should give the orders to exceed the budget and fund their medications, or else to take responsibility for not doing so. Neither should Olmert stand aside while the police force is being torn apart by the suspicions raised by the Zeiler Commission. The decision on appointing a new police inspector-general belongs to Internal Security Minister Avi Dichter, but Olmert would go a long way to showing he's boss if he gently insisted on giving the post to his old friend, former Jerusalem Police chief Mickey Levy. The same goes for Justice Minister Haim Ramon's dilemma: whether to stick to the seniority system in choosing a president for the Supreme Court, or to depart from tradition and seek an alternative to Dorit Beinisch. A decision of this magnitude should be taken by the prime minister, and not just behind the scenes. Olmert should also look to ward off another looming crisis. Despite Education Minister Yuli Tamir's best intentions, it seems doubtful she can prevent further firings of teachers and the resulting strikes that once again will bedevil the opening of the next school year. Tamir doesn't have the political clout to push through a serious education reform, and her leader, Peretz, has enough on his plate. This is Olmert's chance to get the sorely needed reforms listed to his credit and gain a valuable political ally on the way. There's a wide range of opportunities for Olmert to make significant changes in a short time and to prove to everyone who's boss. But only if he immediately stops basking in his Washington glory and cancels any plans for a summer vacation.