Diplomacy: Survival of the fittest?

The style of his Winograd speech shows that Olmert considers himself safely back in the political saddle.

Olmert knesset 224.88 (photo credit: AP)
Olmert knesset 224.88
(photo credit: AP)
He might not have US presidential candidate Barack Obama's charisma, popularity or oratorical brilliance, but when Prime Minister Ehud Olmert took to the Knesset podium Monday to discuss the Winograd Committee report, the subtext of his speech was downright Obamian: "Yes we can." The democratic candidate has fired up the American masses with his "Yes we can" mantra. "Yes we can to opportunity and prosperity," Obama says regularly on the stump. "Yes we can heal this nation. Yes we can repair this world. Yes we can." Olmert, in his own imitable style, is - after the release of the Winograd report - also saying "yes we can," but with a different twist. "Yes we can continue to govern after the Second Lebanon War, despite the withering criticism of the Winograd committee," he seemed to say in the Knesset on Monday. "Yes we can keep this coalition together. Yes we can continue talks with the Palestinians. Yes we can lead the land." And the Knesset answered, not in the ways Obama's crowds reply, with resounding chants and near ecstatic applause, but with a hesitant "amen" in the form of a 59-53 vote of approval of Olmert's declaration. It was, nevertheless, an invigorated Olmert who spoke. The bobbing, finger-thrusting speaker that day was a man who seemed rejuvenated by the "pass" he received from Winograd, even though it wasn't an unequivocal "pass." He seemed reenergized by the extended lease on political life Defense Minister Ehud Barak gave him by turning his back on previous promises and deciding to stay in the government, even though Barak snubbed Olmert by not being present during the Knesset speech and later, in private, reportedly called the speech "cynical." OLMERT'S STYLE was neither humble nor meek, as some might have expected following the Winograd report which, even if it cleared him of initiating the final ground invasion for political reasons, did severely chastise the workings of the government he led. "The government acted correctly when it resolved to respond on July 12 in order to stop the intolerable magic circle of terror attacks, kidnapping of soldiers and disruption of life in the North," Olmert said, ever sure of himself. "If I faced the same data today, I would recommend making the same decision... The security cabinet was correct in instructing the prime minister and minister of defense to expand the ground operation on August 9, and we were correct to start this operation for a limited period of time in order to bring about the desired diplomatic decision for Israel." No, Olmert's style was anything but apologetic or contrite. Rather, it was confident, combative, sarcastic, certain, angry - it was the Olmert of pre-June 12, 2006. This demeanor - the new-old Olmert - is unlikely to change despite Winograd Committee member Yehezkel Dror's comments later in the week fueling speculation that political considerations may have underpinned the committee's final findings. But by this time next week, Dror's statements will most likely be long forgotten, surpassed by some other political or security drama. The damage Dror's statements did to the credibility of the committee will largely be in the minds of those wanting to chase Olmert from office; while for those who want to keep him there, Dror's words won't make a whit of difference. Olmert was able to stand confidently at the Knesset rostrum, because what did become clear this week was that, at least in the Knesset, those who want to keep him in power outnumber, if only ever so slightly, those who want to run him out. Which raises an important question: Now what? What does Olmert hope to do now that Winograd is behind him and he has more political time? Contrary to what his opponents, critics and rivals may assume, Olmert himself does not believe his political career is over; he does not agree that while he may survive another year or more in office, he can never win another election. Olmert does not believe his future is behind him. Rather, he feels he needs time, and time is exactly what both Winograd and Barak gave to him, with the consensus wisdom being that Barak gave Olmert at least another year this week. DURING THIS year, expect Olmert to try to give everybody what he wants. For those who want a peace process, and there are many of those in his coalition who do, he will continue unabated with the negotiations with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, having Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni continue talking about the core issues with PA negotiator Ahmed Qurie. All the core issues will be discussed, of course, except for Jerusalem, which will be put on hold because Shas doesn't want it, and Olmert, with a narrow coalition of 67, has to give Shas what it wants, too. In addition, Olmert will also likely take a very firm policy on Hamas and okay increased military action in the Gaza Strip - that's also what Shas wants. Olmert, according to government sources familiar with his thinking, believes he can regain his public standing if he can just show progress on the diplomatic track, while at the same time bringing down rocket attacks on the Negev. But for that, again, time is of the essence. BARAK WAS willing to give Olmert the time because it also serves his own political purposes. Barak did not win any points among the electorate for giving Olmert a new lease on life, at least not in the short term. He admitted that himself Sunday when he announced that he would be staying in the government. But Barak reads the surveys showing that his poll numbers are slipping not only behind those of Likud head Binyamin Netanyahu, but behind Olmert's as well. He needs to win points with the public, and the best way to do that is to act decisively, efficiently and effectively in his role as defense minister. If Barak, through policies he promotes and carries out, can substantially bring down the Kassam rocket attacks or bring about a significant change in the current security balance with Hamas, this would provide a huge boost in his next electoral battle, which he believes will be against Netanyahu, rather than Olmert. Barak has veered to the Right over the last few months because he feels the Left and much of the center-Left will support him against Netanyahu, regardless of what happens on the ground. What he needs now is to build up his credentials with the center-right, which an effective policy against Gaza could well do. To do this, however, he needs time. Barak will not succeed in bringing down the number of Kassams overnight, but daily actions - like the hitting of Hamas leaders in Gaza witnessed toward the end of the week - could have an impact over a longer period, just as the daily incursions into the West Bank for the last five years have been credited with dramatically reducing the number of terrorist attacks from there. If Barak changes the security equation, the public, and certainly his own constituents, will be more willing to forgive his broken resignation promise. Barak gave Olmert more time because he needs that time to rebuild as well. Indeed, the need for time is the main thing Barak and Olmert have in common today - it is the very magnet pulling them together.