Analyze This: Olmert must look beyond mere survival

Each Kassam will now exact a political price.

Olmert 298.88 (photo credit: AP)
Olmert 298.88
(photo credit: AP)
Whatever else one can say about the government of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, it cannot be claimed that since the conclusion of the Second Lebanon War it has lacked a strong central purpose, that it has not been guided by a single over-riding principle. And that purpose, that principle, has been to survive the final conclusions of the Winograd Committee. Now that those results are in, it appears more likely than at any point since the war that Olmert will indeed weather the fierce storm that blew in this week both literally and figuratively, at least through 2008. Although Defense Minister Ehud Barak is still weighing his moves after earlier promising to lead Labor out of the coalition if Olmert did not resign following the issuance of the final report, it is very unlikely he will break up the government and trigger early elections at this stage, especially with the committee's criticism of the prime minister having come out less harsh than expected, and the latest polls showing Binyamin Netanyahu's Likud emerging the winner in an immediate ballot. Barak will likely find some kind of formula to quell criticism in his faction from those who want to bolt now, one that perhaps will involve a pledge to hold early elections in a year's time. Yet if the Labor leader is to justify such a decision to his colleagues - and more importantly, to the voters - in 2009, he's going to have to be able to point back at 2008 and show something that was accomplished. For Olmert and his Kadima colleagues, simply surviving in their current positions may be enough. But Barak is playing for bigger stakes as the expected main competition against Netanyahu in the next election, and he's going to need something to show for his time in office. It's doubtful that a vague claim of having "reformed the army," something the IDF can do on its own, will prove sufficient. Come Sunday morning, then, the Olmert government - especially Barak, along with those ministers (Livni, Mofaz, Dichter, Sheetrit) viewed as possible inheritors of the Kadima leadership - has to get down to business. From here on in, every Kassam that causes casualties; every terror attack emanating from areas of the West Bank under PA security control; every report of a breakdown or deadlock in the talks with Mahmoud Abbas and his negotiators; and every illegal settlement outpost that either goes up or stays up will exact a political price, not from Olmert, but from his would-be successors. Barak certainly didn't create the mess on the Gaza border, but if he has any expectation of returning to the Prime Minister's Office, he has to at least try and come up with answers to the multitude of problems there. After not stepping down last year when the prime minister refused to heed her calls for him to resign, Livni has staked her image of integrity on the premise that she can lead the effort to forge an agreement with the Palestinians. As for Olmert, he may be the only person in Israel (except for Tommy Lapid) who truly believes he can restore his reputation to the point that he can be a viable candidate for another term of office - or even to finish off his current one in two years' time. Convincing anyone else of this dubious proposition will require much more than his government simply reacting to external developments, be it the unfolding situation along the Egyptian border, the growing nuclear threat from Iran, or the increasing pressure from Washington to fulfill the conditions of the road map. The Winograd Report may have bought the government breathing space until the next national vote, but it has not improved the electoral prospects of anyone sitting in it; if anything, the opposite is true. Simply surviving the report has until now provided the coalition with all the "vision horizon" it needed. From here on in, though, with the impact of Winograd melting away as fast as the winter snows that fell this week, it will have to prove to the public, especially its own constituencies, that it has some purpose beyond staying in power. For 18 months the Olmert government has been largely reactive, including in the peace process, where it has been primarily responding to the Bush administration's initiatives. Taking a more proactive approach - be it a large-scale operation in Gaza, staking out solid positions on final-status issues in the peace talks, evacuating the outposts, even some kind of response to the Iranian nuclear project - carries real risks, political and otherwise, for Olmert, Barak, Livni et al. But not taking bolder action than they have until now means simply keeping their cabinet seats warm through the cold winter for Netanyahu and the Likud until the next election. [email protected]