Diplomacy: Prime suspect?

Winograd will determine extent to which gov't retains public trust.

olmert 63 (photo credit: )
olmert 63
(photo credit: )
Now, finally, the people will be able to decide. Eighteen months after the Winograd Committee began deliberations, after hearing hundreds of hours of testimony and after the writing of one highly critical interim report, the commission that investigated the waging of the Second Lebanon War will at long last issue its conclusions on Wednesday. And then, finally, we can all move on. The uncertainty will be lifted. We will get a sense, for the first time since the committee was set up in September 2006, whether Olmert's government is secure, or just a passing blip. Although no one - despite the intense speculation - really knows what the committee's report will entail, it is highly improbable that the five-member panel will call on Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to step down. That would go well beyond the committee's mandate to probe the war, and bring it into a domain not its own: determining the fate of prime ministers. Rather, the committee is expected to focus on that final battle, that final ground surge, that final action on August 12, 2006 - as the UN Security Council was deliberating the resolution that would end the war - that led to the deaths of 33 IDF soldiers. Was this action good or bad, responsible or reckless, justified or not? And it is the tone of the conclusions that will determine whether Olmert will carry on leading this country. The people, after reading the report, or becoming familiar with its content through the media, will decide by their actions. They will decide by their demonstrations. And the nature of their arguments will indicate whether they are clearly motivated by a political desire to bring down the government because of objections to other policies, such as the Annapolis process, or whether they are motored by a sense of grave injustice, a deep-seated feeling that because of errors of judgment, the current leaders simply can no longer lead. Despite the cynicism of the public, the political establishment here is not immune to public outcry and protest. The Four Mothers movement of the late 1990s, that led to the withdrawal from Lebanon - a withdrawal the Winograd Committee may very well determine was in error - is an example of how protest can impact policy. The inability of the movement to stop the withdrawal from Gaza - indeed, to prevent disengagement - was not because the government did not hear. It was because the government concluded that the movement did not reflect the will of the people, but rather that of a minority of settlers, right-wingers and religious Zionists who failed to get their narrative accepted by the majority of the country. Had they done so - had they been able to branch out to wider sectors of the public - it might have been a different story. "Our people - a people longing for an opportunity of light at the end of the dark tunnels which cloud our joie de vivre - is a wise people," Olmert said Wednesday night at the Herzliya Conference, as part of a speech that sounded like a lawyer's final appeal to a jury before it breaks for final deliberations on a verdict. "It knows who speaks the truth and who does not. It knows who speaks from the heart and who speaks out of insatiable lust for authority and power." Olmert is banking on the people to be able to read the conclusions of the Winograd report and draw their own conclusions: that he acted reasonably in difficult circumstances; that he made rational decisions given the information he had available at the time; that his motivations were not tainted by ulterior political considerations. Olmert is hoping the people will conclude that, while mistakes were made - errors committed - he has, as he said Wednesday night, nothing to apologize for. AS HAS become tradition, the prime minister spoke at the closing session of the conference. At the beginning of the conference, also as is tradition, a study was presented regarding the country's resilience, the so called "Herzliya indices." Gabriel Ben-Dor, the chairman of Haifa University's political science department, presented findings from the index, and said that while still patriotic, optimistic and not overly militant, the public has had its faith in the country's political and judicial institutions shaken over the last year on two levels - regarding the functioning of those institutions and the integrity of those who comprise them. "The survey shows a very clear conclusion," Ben-Dor said. "According to the people themselves, we have a resilient and strong society that has worse institutions than it deserves, and the institutions and leaders have a wiser and more resilient people than perhaps they deserve." Strong stuff, which can be summed up as follows: the people are better than their leaders. "There is a reason in general to worry about the deterioration in [the people's faith in] the political institutions of the state, including the political parties, government ministers, and the Knesset, because democracy cannot function when the masses of voters do not have faith in the institutions that are supposed to lead them," Ben-Dor said. And herein lies the importance of the Winograd report. Since the Second Lebanon War, the public has - to a large extent - lost its faith in the government's ability to lead it, evident in the consistently low marks the government in general, and Olmert in particular, receives in the polls. But faced with challenges from Gaza to Iran, Israel is not a country that can afford a situation where the people lose faith in their leadership. If Olmert decides on a massive military action in Gaza, the people - who will be asked to kill and risk being killed - must believe in him and trust his judgment. All the more so concerning policy toward Iran. This is the importance of Winograd report. What it contains will determine whether this government retains that public trust, or not. If yes - if the committee says that Olmert's overall decisions were sound, though possibly flawed - the government will limp along, because the public will not sustain a protest movement that could bring it down. But if not - if the conclusion, couched in whatever language, is that the decisions were bad, that Olmert approved an action which sent soldiers to their death in vain - then it is just a matter of time before this government will be swept from power. No government in this country - where everyone has someone in the army - can last if the public senses that it sent soldiers to die for no good reason. This will be seen as an unforgivable act that will have a powerful impact on the general public - and one that no politician can ignore. The Winograd Committee's report will determine whether the people feel that way, or not.