Analysis: A big hit for the two Ehuds

Though we may never know who killed Mughniyeh, Olmert and Barak will still try to seek credit for it.

barak olmert 224 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
barak olmert 224
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Shortly after the Prime Minister's Office released a statement denying any connection to the assassination of Hizbullah terrorist Imad Mughniyeh on Wednesday, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert strolled into the Knesset cafeteria in a very good mood. Olmert, unlike predecessor Ariel Sharon, doesn't usually frequent the cafeteria. He prefers to eat in the shelter of his Knesset office, far from the hungry reporters who scavenge the cafeteria for political carrion. When Olmert enters the cafeteria, it usually means he is trying to send a message that he is happy about something and he wants everyone to know about it. Reporters soon drifted to his table and asked him whether he would be sending flowers to Mughniyeh's funeral. "Don't rush to praise me this time, because we haven't taken responsibility," Olmert joked, in a reference to the bombing of a Syrian nuclear site in September that helped the prime minister restore some of the credibility he lost during the Second Lebanon War. Like the September attack, Mughniyeh's killing may never officially be attributed to Israel, but Olmert and Defense Minister Ehud Barak will try to find a way to ensure they receive credit for it nonetheless. Barak already seemed to hint that something was in the works when he pleaded with politicians on Monday to stop suggesting possible targets. The assassination couldn't have come at a better time for either Ehud. They both returned to Israel from abroad knowing that they would be facing immense pressure. With Sderot residents blocking roads, northern municipalities striking and Shas chairman Eli Yishai flexing his political muscles, Olmert and Barak returned to a tinderbox. Whether or not Israel was involved, it seems Mughniyeh's passing will help the Ehuds pass through their latest round of crises. Olmert hopes his meeting with Yishai on Wednesday appeased him and put the story of secret negotiations on Jerusalem to rest while the public was distracted. The northern mayors look petty protesting when their communities may have just gotten safer. And at least for a few days, Sderot residents' calls for an invasion of the Gaza Strip will subside. Unlike a ground invasion targeting hundreds of terrorists in Gaza, the death of one terrorist in Syria cost no Israeli lives but allowed the Ehuds to reap the same political capital. Olmert won some more time ahead of an apparently inevitable Gaza invasion that he seems to dread. Olmert has said in closed conversations that he was glad he had resisted calls for a major ground operation in Lebanon way beyond the scope of the operation in the final 60 hours of the war. He will likely continue to resist calls for such an operation in Gaza for as long as he can, in part because he knows the potential for heavy causalities. For Barak, whose security credentials have been questioned increasingly with every rocket attack, Mughniyeh's assassination reminded people of his past. An Arab commentator whose analysis was broadcast on Israel Radio said Barak was the father of the strategy of targeted killings from his days as an army officer. Such an assassination would only require authorization from the prime minister, who would not necessarily have to inform his defense minister. But regardless of whether Olmert or Barak were involved, Mughniyeh's hit was a big hit for both of them.