Diplomacy: The supreme politician

Olmert has managed to thwart immediate calls for ouster. But how long can his survival tactics prevail?

olmert 88 good  (photo credit: AP)
olmert 88 good
(photo credit: AP)
At 6 p.m. Monday afternoon, just moments after retired Judge Eliahu Winograd finished publicly reading a summary of the damning interim report his committee had written, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert straightened his tie and prepared to greet visiting Singapore Foreign Minister George Yeo in his inner chambers. Even as the television and radio stations were repeating over and over Winograd's phrase that Olmert demonstrated "a serious failure in exercising judgment, responsibility and prudence" last summer, the prime minister talked with Yeo for 20 minutes about bilateral Singapore-Israeli relations and the status of Asia's economy. It was, said aides, a virtuoso performance: an indication of Olmert's ability to put things to the side and carry on with matters of state. It was also an important message sent to supporters: "Don't be demoralized; we will get over this." This message was important to radiate an hour after Winograd began reading the report, because in order to convince the country that he intended to carry on with business as usual, Olmert first had to make sure that his inner circle was persuaded. The meeting with Yeo helped him hammer the point home. Olmert relies closely on "haverenu," a term loosely translated as a group of friends and close supporters. These are the party apparatchiks, the MKs who are beholden to him, Kadima-affiliated mayors, his inner circle. He needs them and their support. This is his first and last line of defense. So he met Yeo, and he put "haverenu" on notice that he was going to fight. That was Monday. On Tuesday, Olmert's stubbornness to carry on with "business as usual" seemed to backfire, as television cameras focused on him at an induction ceremony for the new police commissioner that he stubbornly insisted on attending - despite protestations to the contrary from top advisers. He looked awful - pale and exhausted - and was caught nodding off during the speeches. The pictures were an apt illustration of what seemed that day - as calls for his resignation increased and a mutiny inside Kadima gained reaction - to be Olmert's political collapse. Yet Olmert did go ahead with business as usual, and the business at hand was politics. While pundits were burying him, he held three key meetings that day with the heads of three of his coalition partners - Eli Yishai from Shas, Avigdor Lieberman from Yisrael Beitenu, and Rafi Eitan from the Pensioners party. He received from each commitments that would ensure his political survival at least until the full Winograd Committee report was published in the summer: assurances that they would leave the coalition if Kadima - in a Tzipi Livni-inspired "velvet revolution" - replaced him as the party's head. It was Olmert quintessentially being Olmert, outmaneuvering his rivals on a playing field that he knows better than anyone else in the country: the political one. Olmert had overnight managed to turn matters on their head. Livni, who came out looking like a political bush-leaguer up against a man who has been playing in the major leagues for three decades, was boxed in: If she resigned and set off a full-fledged revolution inside Kadima that would topple Olmert, she could perhaps become head of the party, but the coalition would then collapse, sending the country spiraling to new elections. And in these elections, according to the polls, Likud and Binyamin Netanyahu would soundly defeat a Kadima headed by Livni. So Livni didn't resign, and Olmert survived to fight another battle - this one the battle for opinion on the street. Thursday night's massive rally in Tel Aviv, like the Livni challenge, was largely viewed in the Prime Minister's Office as a nuisance, but something that would eventually pass. "Nobody is ignoring the public," a senior official inside Olmert's office said. "But with all due respect, one mass demonstration is not going to force the prime minister to resign." The feeling inside Olmert's office was that this wave of protests would dissipate, as did the wave of protests and marches and hunger strikes that followed the summer's war in Lebanon. Things just have to be managed properly. Notice that one of the talking heads in Olmert's office trotted out Monday to deal with the fallout from the Winograd Committee was someone not seen or heard from much in recent months: master "political strategist" Eyal Arad. Arad is an artist at creating perception, and can be counted on to wage an aggressive campaign that will take the air out of the protests. The government already took a step in that direction at its emergency cabinet meeting on Wednesday, when Cabinet Secretary Yisrael Maimon held a rare on-record briefing, and announced the establishment of a blue-ribbon steering committee to implement the recommendations of the Winograd Committee. If correcting the errors is what you want, Maimon told the seemingly restless public, then correcting the errors is what Olmert and the government will do. But if that is not enough for the protesters, then they must be motivated by politics; and if they are motivated by purely partisan politics, then they really don't need to be paid too much attention. BUT THE sentiment in the PMO that one protest will not bring Olmert down misses an important point. True, the protests won't likely force Olmert to quit. But what the protests may do, if the various demonstrations are sustained, are to place pressure on "haverenu," who may in turn force his hand. Olmert has friends - lots of them and important ones - but he doesn't have loyalists the way former prime minister Ariel Sharon did. If the protests continue, the demonstrations could convince Olmert's friends - folks like Avi Dichter, Roni Bar-On and Ruhama Avraham - that sticking with Olmert may turn out to be a liability for them in the long run, and not a benefit. True, Livni's attempt to move Olmert fizzled out, but that doesn't mean that others may not launch a more spirited effort down the line if they perceive that being too closely linked with Olmert may cost them politically in the future. The protests, therefore, are aimed not so much at Olmert, whom they are less likely to budge, as much as they are aimed at those inside Kadima who may move Olmert if they see that their continued allegiance is costing them. Olmert has shown over the last few days that he will be able to survive in the short term, although for how long is a different question. But he is also now widely perceived as unelectable. If his friends and supporters get the message that sticking with him will render them unelectable as well, then they too would likely jump ship. Which is the hidden agenda behind those organizing the protests. Even if Olmert does ride the current wave of public anger, and the protests dissipate as the days get hotter and other issues come to the fore, he still faces another formidable challenge: gaining back the public's trust - a lack of trust to which Winograd gave his considerable stamp of approval. And this is not just an academic question, or a question of popularity. Olmert may, as he said a few weeks ago, continue to govern - even if he is unpopular. But, in order to take any far-reaching military or diplomatic moves in the next few months - from an incursion into Gaza to releasing Palestinian prisoners in exchange for Gilad Schalit - he will need public support and trust in his judgment. With the exception of the US handing him diplomatic relations with Saudi Arabia on a silver platter (a prospect looking increasingly remote as Washington's own ties with Riyadh are becoming more strained), due to a lack of public trust, there is really no bold diplomatic initiative that Olmert could now take. Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul Gheit was quoted Thursday as saying that now was not the time to press Israel regarding the Saudi-backed Arab Peace Initiative, until the domestic picture in Israel clears up. Abul Gheit put into words the obvious: For the foreseeable future, all major diplomatic steps are frozen. Various meetings may be held, US Secretary of Sate Condoleezza Rice may continue to come here every month, but the chances of a significant diplomatic breakthrough are slim. For that you need a prime minister able to push through unpopular moves, and that is a situation which currently doesn't exist in Jerusalem. Olmert is fortunate to have supporters in Washington and Europe who are fearful of what a Netanyahu government may bring, and who are not interested in doing anything to catalyze Olmert's early political demise. Washington's sentiment was barely hidden when White House spokesman Tony Snow came out with a supportive statement of Olmert soon after the Winograd Report was released on Monday. US President George W. Bush, Snow said, "works very closely with Prime Minister Olmert, and thinks that he's essential in working toward a two-state solution. The President remains committed to it." EU Foreign Policy chief Javier Solana was quoted as saying that the collapse of the Olmert government would deal a "death blow" to the "peace process." What this means for Olmert is that he will not face pressure from either Washington or Europe in the foreseeable future to take any measures - such as dismantling settlement outposts or abandoning the road map in favor of something else - that could make his precarious political position even more difficult. But when Abul Gheit says that things will have to wait until the domestic picture clears up, this clear picture doesn't only mean a knowledge of who will be leading the country for the next few months. Getting a clear picture of the Israeli domestic political scene also means knowing that that person in power has a mandate from the people to take far-reaching steps. The public followed Sharon in 2005 into disengagement from Gaza largely because they trusted his judgment, prudence and sense of responsibility. The Winograd Committee said that Olmert's judgment, prudence and responsibility were impaired last summer. Olmert can try to fix the structural defects inflicting the way this country makes decisions, and he can probably maneuver himself a few more months in office because of his political acumen, but the question of regaining public trust may very well be something that he will find is now simply beyond repair.