Analysis: Olmert realigns master plan

PM trying to transform from "Ehud the Mover" to "Ehud the Builder."

Olmert pissed off 298 (photo credit: AP [file])
Olmert pissed off 298
(photo credit: AP [file])
The weekend headlines regarding Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's apparent decision to set aside, at least for the time being, his beloved realignment plan were stating the obvious. It would be political suicide for the embattled prime minister, who will count himself lucky if he manages to avoid a state commission of inquiry on his government's conduct of the war, to proceed with such a controversial plan now that unilateral withdrawals have proven so disastrous and his personal credibility is in tatters. The decision represents more than a mere change of emphasis for this administration - it is the wholesale abandonment of Olmert's defining policy. He has forsaken his great vision. As a distinguished graduate of the "never admit you're wrong, never apologize" school of politics, Olmert isn't about to say that there was anything flawed with the plan or with his steadfast insistence on going full-speed ahead with it. He merely believes that it's all a matter of timing. He realizes that to survive as prime minister, he has to devote the next year or so to simultaneously rebuilding the North and his own image. He hasn't given up on realignment. Olmert still believes that Israel's main challenge is the Palestinian question, but instead of addressing it immediately, he hopes to return to it in a couple of years, if he lasts that long. Olmert's new master plan is an ambitious, as yet unspecified grand project for rejuvenating the North, transforming the poor border region between Kiryat Shmona and Shlomi into a promised land of prosperity. He wants to transform his public persona from that of "Ehud the Mover" to "Ehud the Builder." But social programs and infrastructure building aren't the kind of the kind of activities that normally fire Olmert's imagination. That's not why he wanted to become prime minister and the Upper Galilee isn't his favorite destination. Olmert had envisaged his premiership as one of bold diplomatic initiatives, shuttling between the world's great capitals, taking the stage at the UN General Assembly and hobnobbing with George Bush down at the ranch in Crawford. His new schedule doesn't seem to include much foreign travel but he tends to get restless when kept away from Ben-Gurion Airport too long. If Jerusalemites experiences' are anything to go by, Olmert has a short attention span when faced with work that doesn't interest him. His first term as the capital's mayor was energetic and upbeat, but after five years on the job, he seemed to lose his joie de vivre, spending most of his time looking for a way back to the national stage, unsuccessfully competing for the Likud leadership, leading the party's election campaign and running for the Knesset once more. When he wasn't busy with big-time politics, he was overseas, mainly in his beloved Manhattan, where he enjoyed unlimited free parking. So it remains to be seen how long Olmert will manage to remain focused on his rebuilding plans. One thing is for sure, the fun has gone out of being prime minister. It's all uphill and hard work from now on. One thing, however, might keep Olmert's eye on the ball. His position within Kadima is far from safe. Now that his chief political consiglieri, Haim Ramon, has been neutralized for at least as long as his sexual misconduct case drags on, Olmert is increasingly vulnerable to party rivals, who are becoming more and more restless. Olmert's leadership of Kadima was only accepted following Ariel Sharon's January 4 stroke because there was no time for a contest before the elections, and then he was already the elected prime minister. Now that his popularity is taking a nosedive, senior Kadima members are becoming concerned that their party's future might be linked to Olmert's personal political survival. The first open signs of dissent were visible last week when Construction and Housing Minister Meir Sheetrit publicly backed a state commission of inquiry into the war, a direct affront to Olmert and Knesset Speaker Dalia Itzik. The latter suddenly came out with a blueprint for an emergency unity government, and even met with Binyamin Netanyahu to discuss it, without asking party leader Olmert first. Add Sheetrit and Itzik to other disaffected senior members of Olmert's cabinet, Tzipi Livni, Shimon Peres and Shaul Mofaz, who all feel that Olmert disregarded their expert advice throughout the war, and a Kadima coup seems like just a matter of time. Imagine this scenario: Olmert continues to plummet in the polls, Kadima's on the rocks and a cabal of ministers decides on a joint candidate and ask for a meeting with Olmert to place the revolver on his desk. Just the thought of it should be enough to send him scuttling up north wearing a hard hat.