Analyze This: A PM churning as fast as he can

Is Olmert's diplomatic activity easing his precarious position?

olmert very sad 224.88 (photo credit: Daniel Bar-On/Jini)
olmert very sad 224.88
(photo credit: Daniel Bar-On/Jini)
"Two little mice fell in a bucket of cream. The first mouse quickly gave up and drowned. The second mouse wouldn't quit. He struggled so hard that eventually he churned that cream into butter and crawled out. Gentlemen, as of this moment, I am that second mouse." Though that's a line from Steven Spielberg's Catch Me If You Can, one can easily imagine these words coming from the lips of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who also seems to be churning as fast as he can nowadays. Consider the whirlwind of diplomatic activity occupying the Prime Minister's Office in just the past few weeks: resolving the cease-fire agreement with Hamas; trying to move forward on the second part of the deal that will obtain Gilad Schalit's release; negotiating a similar arrangement for the hostages held in Lebanon; engaging in indirect talks with Syria; continuing the final-status talks with the Palestinian Authority; holding high-level consultations with the US and others over the Iranian threat; and engaging in what must surely be additional sensitive efforts taking place away from the media spotlight. It's an impressive list, and no matter what one may think of the prime minister's current status, he certainly can't be accused of paralysis in the face of his mounting legal and political troubles. Unfortunately for Olmert, though, the particular bucket into which he has fallen is not filled with a substance quite as mutable (or sweet-smelling) as cream - and all the churning in the world is unlikely to help him stay afloat quite as long as he seems to believe it will. In all fairness, it is impossible to determine to what degree the prime minister's policy agenda is being influenced by political considerations related to ensuring his own survival in office. There can be no doubt, though, that even in the face of mounting skepticism among members of his own government - and party - Olmert is pursuing an overall strategy that indicates he truly believes there is a good chance he will overcome his legal hurdles and still be in office as 2008 draws to a close. He reportedly told Kadima activists just as much in private conversations earlier this week, expressing confidence that his attorneys will be able to punch holes in their cross-examination of key witness Morris Talansky on July 17, allowing Olmert to compete in the party primary now being arranged for early autumn. Of course, just saying so to his dwindling band of supporters doesn't mean that Olmert, a wily political pragmatist, sincerely believes it. At this stage, the slightest sign of weakness or resignation on his part, especially if shown to those who still back him, would seriously undermine his precarious position. Maintaining this posture includes having those supporters take the offensive against the likes of Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who have called for his resignation. Also crucial for Olmert in the coming weeks is presenting himself as a prime minister still fully engaged in matters of state, one who is moving ahead on several fronts and not being distracted by police interrogations and consultations with his attorney. More valuable still would be the sight of the Schalit, Goldwasser or Regev families finally getting definitive news about the fate of their loved ones; the residents of Gaza-border communities expressing relief at the weeks of quiet they have enjoyed since the Hamas cease-fire went into effect; the announcement of genuinely serious progress toward an agreement with the Palestinians; or even Olmert in an historic handshake with Syrian President Bashar Assad next month in Paris. All these are worthy goals on their own and no one could say the government wouldn't or shouldn't be pursuing them as vigorously as it is doing now, no matter what the prime minister's personal status happened to be. Still, it may be that Olmert is thinking that one or more such developments might even provide him with sufficient political capital to emerge the victor in a Kadima primary - or even to renege on his earlier promise to resign in the event of an indictment resulting from the Talansky investigation, provided the charges fall short of such crimes as bribery or fraud. If so, then Olmert's renowned political acumen is finally failing him. One of his steadiest supporters, Minister-without-Portfolio Ruhama Avraham-Balila, did seem to be testing the waters for this strategy last week when she declared at a Kadima rally in Tirat Hacarmel: "It's true that this isn't the first investigation and not the second investigation and not the third investigation and not the fourth investigation - and I don't know if it's the last investigation. But why? Whom does it really bother?" But the widespread derision that Avraham received in the wake of those remarks is a sure sign that this particular line of defense is not going to find a warm reception from the public. Nor does local political history offer much useful precedent for Olmert that all this current activity will play a part in influencing his eventual political fate. Any argument that can be made that the government is in the midst of diplomatic or security proceedings too sensitive or too crucial to withstand a prime ministerial resignation can be easily countered by citing Golda Meir's agreement to step down in 1974 in the face of protest, while still in the midst of the post-Yom Kippur War negotiations with the Egyptians and Syrians. Even more relevant, Yitzhak Rabin ended his first term of office in 1977 over a legal infraction less serious than those now being alleged against Olmert, and none of his achievements in office - including the glorious Entebbe rescue just a year earlier - had much impact in softening the blows that led to his resignation. Ehud Olmert should of course press on with the crucial tasks he believes are in the best interests of the country, right up until his very last day in office. But his decisions on these matters shouldn't be taken with - or influenced by - the false hope that these developments will extend his time in that office by even one day.