Politics: Oops... we're out of etrogs

One thing is certain: Ehud is no Arik where being coddled is concerned.

olmert say what (photo credit: AP)
olmert say what
(photo credit: AP)
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's new spokesman, Ya'akov Galanti, started his job on Monday, the same day that the scandal erupted over Olmert's inadvertent admission that Israel had a nuclear capability. Olmert's aides said that Channel 2 took his statement to the German Sat1 network - that Iran was "aspiring to have nuclear weapons, as America, France, Israel, Russia" - out of context. They said that until the report, no one who was present at the interview thought that any news had been made, including Olmert's outgoing spokesman, Asi Shariv, his foreign media spokeswoman, Miri Eisin, and the interviewers themselves, who said in their report that the prime minister "refused to talk about Israel's nuclear program." Regardless of whether the statement was taken out of context, made deliberately or was a slip-up by the prime minister, two things are clear: Galanti has a difficult job to do; and the media is not coddling Olmert like the proverbial "etrog" [citron], as it was accused of doing with Olmert's predecessor, former prime minister Ariel Sharon.
  • 10 of the PM's more unfortunate quotes With Olmert, a better comparison of how he is treated could be made to a "lulav" [palm branch], which is shaken in six directions, or - with Hannuka starting Friday night - to a potato latke that is ground up, smothered in oil and fried to a crisp. Olmert is receiving the same treatment as former prime ministers Binyamin Netanyahu and Ehud Barak, who both complained that the media over-scrutinized their every word. This is due, in part, to the fact that when it comes to his handling of the media, Olmert has followed in the footsteps of Netanyahu and Barak, despite wearing Sharon's shoes. Netanyahu and Barak were criticized for giving too many interviews in an effort to impact public opinion. Both entered office with an image of being media savvy and left the Prime Minister's Office blaming the press for their political demise. While Sharon limited his media appearances, always stuck to his prepared notes and delivered headlines in precise doses, Olmert has given many more interviews and is not afraid of making impromptu statements to the press. People who worked with both men said this was one of the reasons that Olmert has gotten into trouble for controversial quotes (see box) that he may later have regretted. "There is a saying used by political strategists that no prime minister is ever sorry about the interview he never gave," a Kadima source said. "The prime minister has to accept the restraints that the professionals offer him for his own success. Sharon accepted that the professionals knew the media better than he did and he listened to them." As a subtle example of the damage caused by too much time in the limelight, the source said that Olmert made a high profile speech at the Globes Business Conference on Monday about allocating $400 million for the Social Affairs Ministry, but the speech was forgotten due to the German television interview. "He hasn't realized yet that he doesn't have to give a headline every other hour," the source said. "Feeling free with the media doesn't mean he can shoot off more than he was planning to. Being a verbal prime minister is an advantage, but he doesn't have to use it. You don't have to be a puppet for the media show every night. When you play the media so extensively, you lose their respect." The source also blamed Olmert's pitfalls on his professional staff, whom he accused of "using the wrong strategy and losing control of the prime minister." Olmert has not consulted in months with Sharon's advisers from his ranch forum, Reuven Adler, Eyal Arad and Lior Chorev. When Shariv finishes his job next month, following a month-long overlap with Galanti, Olmert will lose another connection to his predecessor. Shariv rejected the criticism and blamed the press for "trying to catch" Olmert and exaggerating many of the quotes now listed as the prime minister's slip-ups. But he said he had not expected the press to be easy on Olmert, and he recalled that the media was less kind to Sharon when he first took office. "Most prime ministers are not treated like an etrog," Shariv said. "We love remembering just his last year in office, but Arik [Sharon] took a lot of hits at the beginning of his premiership. The first year is never easy. Arik had 1,000 deaths from terror his first year and came out of it all right - and so will Ehud." Shariv denied that the media strategy for Olmert was different than for Sharon. He said that just like Sharon, Olmert would only give interviews to the Israeli press twice a year before holidays and to foreign press in a country before he visited. But Olmert has already gone abroad more than Sharon did, and he is planning more trips. Asked about comparisons being made between Olmert and Netanyahu's ability to think about what they say before saying it, Shariv said, "We would have to go through a lot more to stoop to Bibi's level." Posed with the same query, Netanyahu's spokesman, Ophir Akunis, said he was offended by the question. "In the short time that Olmert has been prime minister, he has answered that question," Akunis said. "Everything Olmert has been attacked for were things he himself said, so he should only look at himself." Netanyahu's recent missteps include his speech about the late Moledet leader Rehavam "Gandhi" Ze'evi's serving in his cabinet - which he did not - and an interview in which he recalled seeing British mandatory soldiers on the streets of Jerusalem, which he could not have, because he was born in 1949. In the more distant past, Netanyahu caused a storm in 1997 by whispering into the ear of Sephardic sage Rabbi Yitzhak Kadourie that "the Left forgot what it means to be Jewish." Four years earlier, during the Likud leadership race, he admitted an extramarital affair on Channel 1's nightly news, because he was told that a political rival had an incriminating tape, which never materialized. Yechiel Leiter, a senior policy analyst at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs who served as Netanyahu's chief of staff, and traveled extensively with Sharon on his international speaking tours in the early 1990s, said Olmert's problem with saying things that he later regretted was much more severe than Netanyahu's ever was. "You can't compare the Gandhi mistake to telling a group of high school students that the kidnapped soldiers might not be alive," Leiter said. "With all due respect, Bibi may have a propensity for theatrics that caused him a few slips of the tongue, but none of his faux pas could be compared to admitting Israel's nuclear capability on German television, and compromising a decades-old national security policy." Leiter said Netanyahu's expertise with the media worked against him, because his well-thought-out sound bites came off as shallow. He said the Israeli press also gave Netanyahu a hard time because of their leftist leanings. "Netanyahu's main problem with the media is that they don't like his policies or that he is too well-polished," Leiter said. "Olmert is not comparable to either Netanyahu or Sharon. He doesn't have the same gravitas in the world that Bibi had, and he is not controllable by his advisers like Arik was." Leiter said Sharon was successful with handling the media because he learned to make up for his weaknesses by carefully orchestrating his press conferences. But he said what helped Sharon more than anything was adopting leftist polices. "Arik didn't have the support of the media until disengagement and before he started using the Left's expressions, like occupation," Leiter said. "When he started talking like them, he suddenly became a favorite son. He became untouchable. He was their baby." Shariv said that if the state budget passes, Olmert will gain another year in power and another year of experience in which he can learn important lessons. He said he would leave Galanti with the following advice: "Always be trustworthy and reachable, and talk as little as possible."