Analysis: Olmert the political wizard

There is nobody in this country - nobody - who is a better politician in the trenches than Olmert.

olmert 88 good  (photo credit: AP)
olmert 88 good
(photo credit: AP)
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, as the Winograd Committee's interim report attested, may have been out of his element while waging war last summer against Hizbullah. But he is completely in his element now, waging a battle for his political survival. There is nobody in this country - nobody - who is a better politician in the trenches than Olmert. Despite the polls, despite the headlines, despite the editorials and the much-discussed "public atmosphere" (whatever that is), Olmert is not through - far from it. The prime minister deftly survived the immediate aftermath of the Winograd Report, and with each passing day the chances of him either resigning or being ousted recede. There will be those who will say that Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni - because of Hamlet-like indecisiveness and hesitancy - missed "her hour" at her dramatic press conference Wednesday to take the bull by the horns, resign, and start a snowball effect in the government and Kadima that would force Olmert out. But Olmert made sure that Livni's hour never arrived.
Winograd Fallout: In-Depth
Olmert went into the meeting with Livni Wednesday afternoon - a meeting in which she called on him to step down - with assurances in his pocket that Shas, Israel Beiteinu and Gil Pensioners would not stay in the coalition if he was not Kadima's head. This effectively meant that if the fledgling revolt inside Kadima gained traction and brought Olmert down, then in no time at all Livni could find herself at the head of a party with 29 seats, but with no chance of forming a coalition. New elections would be necessary and, according to recent public opinion polls, Livni and Kadima would be roundly defeated by the Likud and Binyamin Netanyahu. Livni - who has benefited for months from the aura of being clean and even above politics - let her political side shine clearly through on Wednesday. She did what was politically good for her - stay put for the time being, let events flow. Olmert maneuvered matters politically so that Livni's resignation now would not have led to her coronation as prime minister, but rather would have ultimately left her holding an empty bag come Election Day. Olmert's next challenge is to survive Thursday night's expected massive protest in Tel Aviv, and wait until the immediate bang from the Winograd Report diminishes and the public goes back to business as usual. And the public will go back to business as usual - at least if recent history is any indication. If not this week, then next. And if not next week, then in two or three weeks. Olmert skillfully took the sting out of the antigovernment protests that sprouted up immediately after the war last summer by appointing the Winograd Committee. And he is taking a page out of the same playbook now by having moved full speed ahead Wednesday in creating a special committee, headed by former chief of General Staff and cabinet minister Amnon Lipkin-Shahak, to implement the report's recommendations. To those calling for his head, Olmert now responds that only he and his government really have a vested interest in fixing the mistakes, and that any other government would just shunt the report aside - as so many other governments have shunted aside so many other reports. Olmert is betting that when the public sees the august Lipkin-Shahak committee begin its meetings, and when they read press reports about its progress, the Winograd-triggered wrath will wane. Those who were influenced by a few shrill resignation calls and Olmert's own exhausted appearance at a public ceremony on Tuesday - and began writing the prime minister's political obituary - badly underestimated the man's political acumen. He is likely to ride out this initial wave of criticism and survive until the full Winograd Report is published in the summer. And even if that report turns out to be more damming then the interim one, it's not wise to wager against Olmert - politically, the man is a magician. Which doesn't necessarily mean he will remain in office until the end of the year. Olmert, more than being concerned about Winograd, now needs to worry that one of the numerous investigations against him set into motion by State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss will actually stick. In that eventuality, all of his considerable political skills may be unable to extricate him from a bind that is not political, but legal.