Politics: Kadima's kiss of death?

With Ramon's conviction, Olmert lost not only a justice minister, but also an adviser and trusted friend.

ramon leaves court 298.8 (photo credit: AP [file])
ramon leaves court 298.8
(photo credit: AP [file])
Black Jewish comedian Aaron Freeman of Chicago started off his routine at Jerusalem's Kol Haneshama synagogue on Wednesday night by thanking former justice minister Haim Ramon for being the best warm-up act he could have hoped for. Freeman had only been here for a few days, but he was already able to sum up the state of the country when he told the crowd that he found it amazing that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was even less popular with the public than a president accused of rape. No such poll has been taken, but Olmert can only hope things won't get even worse for him after going from one nightmare to another. With Ramon's conviction, Olmert lost not only a justice minister but also a political adviser and a trusted friend. Olmert is running out of friends now that Shula Zaken, his secretary for three decades, is under house arrest and his closest political ally, Finance Minister Avraham Hirchson, is under investigation. The prime minister answered questions about the war in Lebanon before the Winograd Commission on Thursday, and he will soon be questioned regarding suspected illegalities in the sale of Bank Leumi. A poll this week found that Kadima's mandates had fallen into the single digits, a dramatic decrease from the 45 it had been expected to receive before former prime minister Ariel Sharon's stroke. The party's popularity continued to fall following Olmert's ill-advised decision to give Labor Party chairman Amir Peretz the Defense portfolio. But the real nosedive began on the first day of the war, when Ramon found time between security consultations to lock lips with a blonde, 21-year-old soldier in what might go down in history as Kadima's kiss of death. The kiss was not all that different from the war, from Kadima and from Ramon's political career. They all started out with great promise, but ultimately went wrong afterward due to faulty and sloppy maneuvering. The irony and tragedy for Ramon was that he built his career as a politician and as one of the Knesset's most respected orators on his ability to use his tongue, and he lost his livelihood the very same way. The verdict that will almost definitely end Ramon's political career was handed down exactly 13 years to the day after his acclaimed "beached whale speech" at the January 30, 1994, Labor convention that helped convince former prime minister Yitzhak Rabin and others that he was "prime ministerial material." "Like a whale that lost its sense of direction, you are storming the beach again and again and trying to commit suicide," Ramon beseeched Labor activists. "And I, with my limited strength, am trying to push you back to the water to save your life, but you don't want, you don't want. You insist on committing suicide." Now Ramon himself has left the stormy political sea, and many of his former political allies in Kadima will follow suit if Olmert does not start swimming in the right direction. The cabinet reshuffle expected as early as next week could be the last opportunity for Kadima to avoid Ramon's fate of being remembered as a promise unfulfilled. In the November 2005 press conference in which he announced that he was joining Kadima, Ramon said he left Labor in part because of Peretz, his former political ally, and warned that working closely with four prime ministers taught him that experience was a key factor in determining whether a prime minister could be successful. "Two inexperienced people became prime minister and nearly brought disaster to Israel," Ramon said, referring to Binyamin Netanyahu and Ehud Barak. "Gambling on someone completely inexperienced to make the key decisions for Israel that prime ministers have to make would be irresponsible." Ramon made what looks now like a prophetic statement before he knew that Olmert would replace Sharon and that Peretz would become defense minister. In the same press conference, Ramon revealed that he had nearly quit politics 18 months earlier, but remained because Sharon adviser Dov Weisglass asked for his help in implementing the Gaza Strip withdrawal. While he never fulfilled his dream of becoming prime minister, Ramon had arguably as much influence as anyone behind the scenes, and he made many political prophesies that ended up coming true shortly thereafter, due in part to his ability to persuade the powers that be. Withdrawing unilaterally from territories, building the security fence and forming a large centrist political party are all part of Ramon's legacy. He was the thinker behind the scenes in all three historic moves, but led none of them. Minister-without-Portfolio Eitan Cabel, Ramon's former campaign chairman and close friend for 30 years, said the reason he never reached his potential was that he did not have nearly as much drive and courage as he had foresight. "He was always the engine behind the biggest decisions, but he was never the leader," Cabel said. "He never did enough to achieve his goals. In politics, you have to work hard, because public admiration is fleeting and politics is a matter of timing. He is the biggest disappointment in Israeli politics, and it's all because of his laziness and weakness." Cabel, who is Labor's secretary-general, would not want to give Olmert political advice, but the answer for how to fix Kadima's problems lies in his analysis of Ramon. Olmert's advisers are telling him that he must work hard and take bold steps to help his government and his party overcome its challenges. The advisers are divided about whether that means firing Peretz from the Defense Ministry or smaller, safer steps. If Olmert makes the right moves and avoids further pitfalls and legal problems, he could still save his premiership. But if not, then Olmert will follow in Ramon's footsteps and kiss his political career good-bye.