Diplomacy: Olmert's 9/11 moment

The PM's behavior in the face of the current crisis could determine the longevity of his leadership.

twin towers 9/11 248.88 (photo credit: AP)
twin towers 9/11 248.88
(photo credit: AP)
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert met his 9/11 moment this week. Just as the September 11, 2001 attacks on the US defined the presidency of George W. Bush, so this week's events will go a long way toward shaping Olmert's premiership. Leaders are measured largely by how they deal with crisis, and the decisions Olmert made this week, and will make in the coming days, will go far toward framing his tenure, and perhaps even determining its length. Granted, the capture of one soldier and the gruesome execution of a teenager is not exactly the same as the flooring of World Trade Center, but it will give the country, its enemies and the world a good sense of Olmert's leadership capabilities. This is the type of event that tests a leader's mettle. Both 9/11 and the Kerem Shalom attack hit early in the terms of both the American and the Israeli leader: Bush was in office for just 234 days when the US was attacked; Olmert will mark 100 days as prime minister next Thursday (he became acting prime minister 82 days earlier, on January 5, after Sharon suffered his stroke). For Bush, the terrorist outrages in New York, Washington and in the Pennsylvania skies completely altered and redefined his agenda. A similar fate may await Olmert - depending both on how he manages this crisis, and its outcome. Olmert has made the withdrawal from the West Bank into settlement blocs - his realignment plan - the centerpiece of his agenda. He has essentially taken the model of disengagement from Gaza and transferred it onto the West Bank, albeit with some adjustments and a different name. Yet the fate of this plan, and his ability to convince the country of its wisdom, will in no small measure be impacted by how he manages the current crisis. Olmert and his Kadima colleagues interpreted their March 28 election victory as a mandate for realignment. But popularity slipped with every falling Kassam on Sderot. Various polls over the last three weeks have put opposition to the plan at 50 percent (a Hebrew University poll), 56% (a Ha'aretz poll) and 70% (a poll commissioned by Israel Beiteinu). And these polls were conducted before Gilad Shalit was kidnapped and Eliahu Asheri was killed. In order to gain the public's support he needs to carry out realignment, Olmert will have to flatten what Ha'aretz writer Ari Shavit once referred to as a "blood curve" - a paradoxical situation over the last 20 years where Israeli concessions, or hints of concessions, did not lead to a decline in terrorism, but rather to its increase. The peak of this curve came after Israel's withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000 and the failed Camp David and Taba talks later that year when then-prime minister Ehud Barak was willing to give up more than 90% of the territories, including far-reaching concessions in Jerusalem. Rather than putting an end to terrorism, it forced Israel into a situation where it faced its worst-ever wave of terror. NOW THAT Israel has left Gaza, in order to win support for further withdrawals - unilateral or otherwise - Olmert needs to end this trend. He needs the public to feel that withdrawal from territories makes them safer, not more at risk. He needs to show the public that what government spokesmen said prior to disengagement from Gaza - that Israel will be able to provide a military answer to violence emanating from the territories even after it is no longer in those territories - was more than just lip service. By re-entering Gaza, and - even more so - by arresting 64 Hamas ministers and parliamentarians, Olmert is trying to do just that. Both Olmert and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni have made clear that Israel's primary aim right now is the release of Shalit. But that's not all. This week's military action was definitely about Shalit, but not only about Shalit. Talking points sent out to Foreign Ministry delegations abroad, while saying the country's military operation was "specific in nature and limited in scope," also widened the campaign's objectives. "The purpose of the operation is to bring the kidnapped Israeli Gilad Shalit safely home, to deal a blow to the Hamas terrorist infrastructure which is thus far operating unhindered, and to prevent the continuation of the terrorist attacks from Gaza which are being launched against civilians inside Israel." In short, Shalit's kidnapping was the trigger - the diplomatic cover, (some would call it the "excuse") - for an operation whose overriding goal is to deal a serious blow to the terrorist infrastructure in Gaza; to break the "blood curve." THE COUNTRY and the world are watching carefully how Olmert manages the crisis. Does he lead with his head or his gut? With whom does he consult? How does he does he handle the pressure? Government officials involved in the decision-making process this week described Olmert as someone who did not lose his cool, did not rush into action, tried to let diplomatic efforts run their course, but decided - when diplomacy did not bear any fruit - that there was no choice but to take action. Like Sharon during similar situations, Olmert made it a point to hold regular consultations with top-level security officials throughout the week - relying heavily on his military attach , Gadi Shamni. There has been criticism that Olmert's staff is thin, and that those advising him are not of the same stature as those who advised Sharon. For instance, Dov Weisglass is no longer whispering in the prime minister's ear. But, say Olmert's defenders, so what? Weisglass, like Turbowitz, also did not come into the office with a rich history dispensing diplomatic/security wisdom. As one official said, "A person's history has to start somewhere." Olmert, according to government officials, is consulting regularly with Justice Minister Haim Ramon and Livni, two ministers who have his trust and confidence, and who are emerging with a great deal of influence inside the cabinet. Like Sharon in similar circumstances, Olmert convened the security cabinet at the outset of the crisis to get blanket approval of military steps that he and Defense Minister Amir Peretz would then be authorized to approve as the situation developed. He then did not need to re-convene the security forum, but could take action - as he did Wednesday when authorizing the arrest of the Hamas leaders - after consulting with a smaller group of top security officials: Peretz, Shin Bet head Yuval Diskin, Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Dan Halutz, and others. It is inevitable that in a crisis like this, Olmert - fairly or not - will be compared to his predecessor, Ariel Sharon. One difference between Olmert and Sharon that stood out sharply was that whereas Sharon, at times like these, minimized what he said and often sufficed with laconic sentences sent out to the press, Olmert appeared in public on a number of occasions and spoke a great deal. Indeed, on Sunday, he convened the security cabinet in Tel Aviv in the late afternoon, so it would conclude - as it did - in time for the nightly television news. Sharon, by contrast, would convene such deliberations late in the evening, which meant that they would end well past TV broadcasts, and too close to the "bedtime" of the daily newspapers for them to be covered in any real detail. From Monday to Wednesday, Olmert gave no less than four public speeches, each which began by dealing with the situation - pledging to free Shalit, threatening Khaled Mashaal and other Hamas leaders, pledging "extreme action." Sharon, one government official said, would not have talked so much. The difference in style, he said, was likely due to each man's different perception of himself in the eyes of the public. Sharon saw himself as a leader, and believed that the public perceived him as such. People may have disagreed or agreed with him, but they thought he knew what he was doing, how to manage a crisis, how to deal with problems. Olmert also views himself as a leader, but the fact that he appeared so much in public this week indicated he is not yet sure of his standing in the eyes of the public. His comments - often repeats of previous messages - seemed a transparent attempt to prove to the country that he is in charge, that there is a steady hand at the wheel, that the nation can relax. Whether the public buys the message, however, will be far more dependent on the decisions Olmert makes, and on how the current situation unfolds, than on how he appeared at a Jewish Agency conference on Monday, or at an award ceremony for scientists and artists on Wednesday.