Politics: Fighting for their lives

As Sharon struggles for survival, his successor, Ehud Olmert, battles for his political future.

olmert peretz 88 298 (photo credit: AP [file])
olmert peretz 88 298
(photo credit: AP [file])
A photograph of graffiti on the outside wall of what appears to be a bomb shelter in the North bearing the Hebrew words, "Arik wake up! Olmert's in a coma" has been circulating on the Internet this month. Those words summed up what Kadima politicians whispered in the Knesset hallways this week and what many Israelis thought when they watched the national harmony, consensus and esprit decorps that had developed during the war spiral quickly into an unsavory blame game. As former prime minister Ariel Sharon struggled for his life at the Sheba Medical Center at Tel Hashomer this week, his successor, Ehud Olmert, struggled for his political life at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem. Both men suffered a significant setback this week, causing one Kadima minister to snicker that he wished the two prime ministers could trade places. To recover, Sharon will have to contend with pneumonia in both lungs, deterioration of his brain and a decreased volume of urine. Olmert's political problems could be just as complicated. He could face a state commission of inquiry investigating mistakes made during the war; politicians on the Left and Right have called upon him to resign; and the unilateral realignment plan that helped carry him to the Prime Minister's Office looks deader than a Katyusha-crushed cockroach in Kiryat Shmona. Olmert lost the boost in popularity he received during the war from the "rally around the flag effect" the moment the cease-fire was imposed on Monday morning. A Teleseker poll published in Ma'ariv revealed that 43 percent of Israelis were satisfied with Olmert before the war, 78% during the war and only 40% by Tuesday. Luckily for Olmert, he has a few things going for him: a coalition that remains stable; a scarcity in suitable alternative candidates for prime minister; and a defense minister and chief of general staff who appear at least as culpable, if not more, for the errors of the war. The scandal that broke on Tuesday regarding IDF Chief-of-General Staff Dan Halutz's controversial sale of his stock on the day that the war began was manna from heaven for the prime minister, because it distracted a carnivorous press away from him. But the number of politicians who want to bring down Olmert far exceeds that of those who want to do the same to Halutz, who may end up being just an appetizer for the main course in the Prime Minister's Office. People who worked closely with Olmert and his predecessor debated whether Sharon would have acted differently had he still been prime minister. A former adviser to both said the main difference was that Sharon, as an experienced general, would have made decisions by himself, while military novice Olmert gave Halutz free rein. "He wouldn't have been dragged into an arduous, month-long ground-war," the adviser said. "He would have gone in with full force from the start. He would have known not to rely on air power, and he wouldn't have allowed Halutz and the general staff to make the mistakes that they did." A Kadima minister saw it differently. He said that due to Sharon's bad experiences in Lebanon, he would not have gone to war at all, just like he didn't when soldiers were kidnapped on the border with Lebanon six years ago. "Olmert and Peretz shot from the hip," the minister said. "Sharon would have sufficed with threatening Hizbullah and that would have been enough to deter Nasrallah from firing rockets and to avoid the war." Journalist Uri Dan, who was Sharon's spokesman during the first Lebanon War, said the main difference between the two wars was that back then, the prime minister, defense minister and chief of general staff all knew what they were doing, but in this case, the only one of the three with military experience was Halutz. "If Sharon could speak now, he would hug only one man and that's Dan Halutz," he said. Another Sharon confidant said an additional difference between Sharon and Olmert was that the former made a point of minimizing his words and maximizing his actions. He said Sharon would never have been caught declaring premature victory or claiming "unprecedented accomplishments," as Olmert did at an August 1 graduation ceremony at the National Security College in Glilot. Olmert issued a statement at the start of the war scolding his associates who blamed Sharon for allowing Hizbullah to stockpile 13,000 rockets on the border. Tension between people who are allies of one man and not the other is rising, and it is likely that once Sharon succumbs to his illness, those associates will be allowed to make such accusations freely. THE KNESSET is still on recess for another two months, limiting the opposition's ability to challenge Olmert politically and make him pay the price for the war. But opposition MKs said that when the Knesset resumes, Olmert will find that the rockets were not the only ammunition that Sharon left behind waiting to explode. Part of Sharon's legacy will be a centrist party in Kadima that automatically attracts simultaneous criticism from both sides of the political map, thereby magnifying any political crisis that develops. Although the opposition is more divided than ever, Olmert's opponents are confident that enough can be found in common to abbreviate his term significantly. The most serious threat to Olmert's premiership is the state budget of 2007, which will be extremely difficult to pass and would result in elections next summer. Peretz's priorities have shifted away from cutting the defense budget to help the poor. But there are enough Labor MKs left, like Shelly Yacimovich, who would refuse to vote for the kind of cutbacks needed to finance an expected boost in defense spending, even if it would cause an election that could end their political careers. The many enemies that Olmert has made in Kadima on his way up to the Prime Minister's Office would also do little to soften his fall on the way down. That growing list includes increasingly independent Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz, Construction and Housing Minister Meir Sheetrit, and MKs Marina Solodkin and Majallie Whbee. Even MK Eli Aflalo, who owes his career to Olmert, declared this week that his loyalty resides with his neighbors in Afula, and that he opposes carrying out a realignment plan that could endanger them. Without realignment to unite the party, it will be hard for Olmert to keep Kadima together for votes on matters of conscience. The Halutz scandal that broke in Ma'ariv overshadowed a report the same day in Ha'aretz that revealed that the committee planning realignment's implementation told Olmert before the war that withdrawing unilaterally in the West Bank would create a dangerous risk of rockets on population centers and would not be recognized by the international community even if Israel withdrew to pre-1967 borders. One report this week suggested that in lieu of withdrawing unilaterally, Olmert would decide to seek a peace accord with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. But Olmert's office said he had not begun to consider how to proceed diplomatically after the war. Olmert's advisers said the main way for him to recover politically from the war was to do his job and look professional. They said he would make many appearances in the North to show that he is taking action to help the region recover. "He will build the North, and that will help him build himself up politically," an adviser said. Olmert also intends to meet individually with Kadima MKs to improve his ties with them and strengthen party morale. He will try to avoid the formation of a state commission of inquiry, and he will attempt to draw a fine line between blaming his generals and deflecting responsibility for the mistakes of the war. The most effective way for Olmert to turn the tables and rapidly gain popularity would be to bring home kidnapped soldiers Gilad Shalit, Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev. If the soldiers come home to their families and rocket fire on the North does not resume, perhaps he could get away with declaring victory in the war without being criticized. Likud MK Reuven Rivlin said he learned from former prime ministers Sharon, Binyamin Netanyahu, Yitzhak Shamir and Menachem Begin that there was nothing like war to make or break a prime minister's career. "A war can bring you to glory or it can bring you to disaster," he concluded.