Analyze This: Olmert keeps a sporting chance

Strength of Winograd storm will likely determine PM's survival.

Olmert 298.88 (photo credit: AP)
Olmert 298.88
(photo credit: AP)
It says something about last week's visit to Israel by George W. Bush that the most memorable comment he made here came not in any formal address or press conference, but a personal comment over dinner at the Prime Minister's Residence. "Take care of Olmert, so he will stay in power. He's a strong leader," the US president reportedly said to Shas chairman Eli Yishai and Israel Beiteinu leader Avigdor Lieberman. He then added: "Israeli politics is like karate; that you never know when the next chop will come." While it is inarguable that Israeli politics is certainly a full contact sport, Bush's karate analogy doesn't quite hold water in this case. With the Super Bowl approaching in just a few weeks, perhaps US football would apply better. Bush's visit was like the half-time ceremonies at the big game: a lot of pageantry that didn't have any real connection with what's happening on the field during real play. And as soon as the president left the stadium - actually even before he flew off on Friday - the whistle blew, the game resumed and Olmert began taking some hits. The first came - surprise, surprise - from Yishai and Lieberman, with Shas rumbling over the Jerusalem issue, and Israel Beiteinu repeating its threat to leave the government as soon as it begins discussing "core issues" with the Palestinians. Although such claims from Shas are a matter of course at any given time no matter what government or issue is involved, Lieberman's warning should likely be taken at face value. "Believe me, Yvette isn't bluffing on this," one of his advisers recently told me, "this really is his red line." Even if it isn't, Olmert has made clear, especially in today's comment calling illegal outposts in the West Bank a "disgrace," that he is no longer bluffing on beginning the process of their removal. Wherever the negotiations are at that stage, it is difficult to imagine Israel Beiteinu sticking with Olmert as soon as its constituency starts watching scenes of settlers being dragged out of their homes by police and soldiers. And whatever brave face the PM's advisers put on ahead of his meeting Monday with Lieberman, it's clear now they went into the Bush visit knowing full well the follow-up would likely mean the loss of Israel Beiteinu in the coming weeks, if not days. This clarifies Olmert's recent courting of Meretz as an outsider supporter of his government, and his wooing of United Torah Judaism as a coalition replacement for Israel Beiteinu. On paper, this is a sound strategy. Although Meretz has said it won't support Olmert after the Winograd Report is released in two weeks, it's difficult to imagine the party voting no-confidence in a government that is in the act of dismantling outposts. As for UTJ, its leaders hardly need worry about post-Winograd outrage among a constituency that doesn't even serve in the army. Presumably Olmert would be able to cobble together some kind of financial package for the haredi school system that would prove tempting enough to win UTJ's support. The Bush visit, along with the new poll showing a majority of Labor voters saying this is not the time for the party to force new elections, may also take some of the heat off Defense Ehud Barak to carry out his earlier promise not to serve under Olmert after the final Winograd Report is released. This is especially so if he can wrangle a pledge from the PM to go to early elections sometime after the negotiations with the Palestinians finish in about a year's time (which of course they might not, by which time any post-Winograd fall-out would have dissipated). It all sounds like a good game plan for Olmert's survival - if politics here really was like karate, in that it depends solely on the political fighting skills of an individual. But Israeli politics, like football, is much more a team sport - and teamwork, at least in the sense of supporting the team leader, is something Kadima is conspicuously lacking nowadays. We saw it last week with Meir Sheetrit already announcing that if Winograd deals Olmert a fatal blow, he sees himself as a natural successor. We saw it Sunday, with Public Security Minister Avi Dichter's assertion that any agreement reached with the Palestinians has to first be approved by "Kadima institutions" (whatever those are) rather than simply be signed off by the PM. And we saw it over the weekend with Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz's comments that the failures during the Second Lebanon War were due not to the military's preparedness, but the government's management of the war. These are harsh words for Olmert in the final quarter before Winograd, and one has to examine Mofaz's intent in making them. While it may well be, as sources in the Prime Minister's Office claim, that his main goal is to excuse his own role as former defense minister in the question of whether the IDF was ready for the war, Mofaz may also be looking forward. Olmert's game plan is based on the assumption that the last thing his Kadima teammates want is to go to elections. But Mofaz could calculate that he has a shot at the party leadership should Olmert fall; if so, even if in the event that the Likud wins the next election, Mofaz would be a natural candidate to return to the Defense Ministry as part of a coalition deal, certainly a step up from his position in the current government. All this strategizing is another reason why the best sports metaphor for Israeli politics is the gridiron game. After all, in football there's always the unpredictable factor. Just look at how the heavy snowstorm in Green Bay over the weekend helped the Packers once again triumph over a visiting club, the Seattle Seahawks, unaccustomed to the wintry Wisconsin weather. There's also a winter storm heading this way in the shape of the Winograd Report, and just how strong it blows in will likely be the real determining whether Ehud Olmert's political career makes it into next season.