Analyze this: Olmert's 'Survivor' 2007

Will the prime minister's luck continue into 2008?

calevbendavid88 (photo credit: )
(photo credit: )
As 2007 dawned, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert had every reason to fear for his political survival over the coming year. Back then, the only other notable political figure in the region whose immediate prospects looked worse than his was Saddam Hussein - who was sent to the gallows just as the year closed out, on December 30. Olmert, too, faced a tightening noose, if only in the figurative sense. The Winograd Commission had begun its work investigating the government's conduct during the Second Lebanon War, and its first report, due a few months later, was widely anticipated to deal the government a potentially fatal blow. Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni was viewed as growing more restless and distant with the prime minister, and many expected her to challenge Olmert for the Kadima leadership - and premiership - after the Winograd Commission had its say. The coalition was already on shaky ground, with defense minister Amir Peretz completely at odds with the PM, and his own position as Labor chairman increasingly precarious. State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss was on the hunt for Olmert's scalp, overseeing no less than eight active investigations against him. And Hamas's control of the Palestinian Authority had brought the peace process to a complete standstill, rendering Mahmoud Abbas irrelevant and depriving the Olmert government of even the pretense of a diplomatic horizon. As this year draws to a close, Olmert has every reason to look back on the past 12 months, at least in a political sense, with a sense of relief and satisfaction. While the hit television series Survivor may have only arrived in a new Israeli edition just this month, the prime minister has successfully played out his own winning version of it during 2007. Not surprising then that Olmert told the Meretz leadership this week he would not step down from office after the Winograd Report is released, even if it the results are personally damning. Having gutted it out through the past year, he has some reason to believe he will also emerge victorious throughout the 2008 version of "survivor," Israeli politics-style. The question then is: Having proved the pundits wrong once, is the PM justified is thinking he will again beat the odds this year? First of all, let's give Olmert due credit with knowing how to play the game. Whatever one thinks of him as a leader - and according to the polls, not many do - there is no doubting his skill as a politician. The PM understands better than most, that the first rule of politics is, having gained the highest office, not to give it up until it's taken from you. A resignation, under any circumstances, is almost certainly not in the offing, and his comments this week should come as no surprise. Secondly, the key to winning "survivor" is knowing how to manipulate the other players to your advantage. Bringing Avigdor Lieberman's Israel Beiteinu into the government, to neutralize threats from the Right; assigning Livni as head of the negotiating team with the Palestinians, to keep her occupied with matters other than scheming to replace him; welcoming Ehud Barak as Peretz's replacement at Defense, knowing that the new Labor chairman still needs time to rehabilitate his own reputation before challenging for the top spot again; and enthusiastically going along with a Bush/Rice diplomatic agenda that gains him international stature and support from Israelis who believe the peace process must move forward, no matter who's in the driver's seat - have all been masterful moves. And his meetings this week with Meretz and United Torah Judaism leaders shows that Olmert is already laying out his moves for the coming year. To be honest, the PM has also had his fair share of luck: the Kassams that narrowly avoided mass killings in Sderot; the terrorist attacks thwarted at the last minute by the security forces; the Hamas takeover of Gaza and subsequent breakup of the PA unity government that turned out to be key in breaking the diplomatic logjam, etc. The result has been: the fewest numbers of Israelis killed in terrorist attacks in decades; improved relations with the international community; a stable government that just passed a new budget with a minimum of fuss; an upturn in tourism; a relatively healthy economy. However much credit one wants to give the PM for all this, the fact remains that simply by staying in office, he reaped the benefits once his luck started to turn for the better after the disaster of the Second Lebanon War. He's played the odds well with the cards dealt him, regardless of how the nation is actually faring under his leadership (or lack of). And 2008? Given that nothing truly dramatic happens outside of Olmert's power - no indictments, no official Winograd call to resign, no unforeseen security mishaps or political developments - can he survive in office through another year? Most pundits this time around are not betting so sure against him. But there is a something fundamentally different in next year's "survivor" series - his Kadima comrades, happy until now to also just have held on to their cabinet and Knesset seats, are going to start getting nervous during the course of this year that by sticking with Olmert too long, they are ensuring the mortality of their own political lives come next election. So don't be surprised if 2008, especially in its latter half, turns out to be the year that survivor-champ Olmert is finally voted off the island, by his own team.