Analysis: Counting on a forgiving public

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's aides and confidants, when talking about his leadership traits, often praise his ability to make quick decisions. He is often described as a person who hears the different sides of an issue and then makes a decision on the spot, trusts his intuition and is not afraid to make tough choices. This trait was apparent on July 12, when, following the killing of three IDF soldiers and the kidnapping of two others, it took Olmert and his cabinet less than 24 hours to lead the country into battle. It seems somewhat odd, therefore, that it took him two weeks to decide what type of inquiry committee to set up to probe that battle. According to one confidant, Olmert's opposition to a state commission of inquiry was principled. He genuinely believes that the country's military and political leadership would be paralyzed by such an investigation - headed by a judge and taking on the characteristics of a court hearing - at a time when such a paralysis would be disastrous for the country. Among the handful of close advisers who met with him over the last two weeks to discuss the issue, there were a few who recommended that Olmert appoint a full-blown state commission of inquiry. But even they recommended this track, not because they thought it would be the best course for the country at this time, but rather because they felt public pressure would mount until there was no choice. It would have been easier for Olmert to choose this path, his advisers said, because it would buy him a couple of years of political quiet, as the findings - if previous commissions of inquiry are any indication - would not be published for a long time. These advisers dismiss critics' claims that Olmert fears that a state commission of inquiry, with its broad statutory powers and whose findings have the most weight, would find him derelict in the way he carried out his duties during the war and recommend he step down. If he were afraid, they argued, he would not have appointed a committee that included Nahum Admoni and Ruth Gavison, since their findings - though not legally authoritative - would undoubtedly be binding in the public's mind. Olmert's advisers said the reason it took him so long to decide on the nature and composition of the inquiry commission was because he wanted to consult with as many people as possible. They said he spoke at length in recent days with legal specialists, defense officials and cabinet ministers. He held three meetings on the issue just with Attorney-General Menahem Mazuz. What his advisers don't say, but that his critics will yell from the rooftops, is that there was much more to his delaying the decision than just a desire to thoroughly examine all sides of the issue. Olmert is a consummate politician, and it will take his best persuasive efforts to convince the country that he wasn't waiting to see how the protests that sprang up after the war played themselves out. Would the reservists be able to mobilize the street? Would the demonstrations catch on, as did the protest movements that led to the establishment of the commission of inquiry into the Yom Kippur War and the Sabra and Shatilla massacres? Or would they fizzle out? Olmert's announcement Monday night seems to indicate that he believes that they have indeed fizzled out. The spin from Kadima that the protests were orchestrated by the Right, by the "Orange camp," by Moshe Feiglin and his followers, obviously had something to do with the protests' failure to take off. The continuous reports in the media that the demonstrations did not catch on also did not help. But whatever the cause, when Olmert looked out from his office Monday and had to decide which type of forum to set up, he didn't see a massive, popular movement pushing him in the direction of a state commission of inquiry. Ironically, Olmert was also given a boost by Hizbullah leader Hassan Nasrallah's interview Sunday, in which he admitted he had not expected Israel to go to war over the kidnappings, and that had he thought this would have been Israel's response, he would not have orchestrated the operation. All of a sudden, the war - which much of the public seems to feel was a failure - started to take on a somewhat different look. As the attitudes of the public toward the war changes, so will its interest in inquiry committees. These types of commissions are established only after defeats, not victories. If the public perception of the result of the war does change, as it may very well do as time passes and the damage suffered by Hizbullah becomes more apparent, then the public may react in a more forgiving fashion to Olmert's decision to take the safer route in probing the war.