The countdown for Olmert has begun

Even if one accepts claims deal is good for Israel, there is no way that it can be good for Olmert.

olmert 298 88 aj (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
olmert 298 88 aj
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
Whatever way you analyze UN Security Council Resolution 1701 and the cease-fire that might have broken out at 8 a.m. Monday morning, and even if you accept the government's claims that it's good for Israel, there is no way that it can be good for Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. This was the war that was going to establish him as a bona fide leader. During the first few weeks, his popularity ratings soared sky-high as the public expressed its trust in the government's decision to go after Hizbullah. There was a great deal of disappointment and skepticism regarding the IDF's conduct following the twin kidnap debacles at Kerem Shalom on June 25 and two weeks later at Biranit, but for once the politicians seemed to be calling the right shots. The war was backed by a consensus spanning everyone but the far-right and far-left. The opposition, apart from the Arab parties, was at it's most loyal and the public, despite almost a quarter of it's members being forced to live in mortal danger, was stoically supporting its leaders. And the nation didn't waver, even when the war turned out to be a far cry from the quick and elegant air operation that had been envisaged at the start. There was not as much as an protest, even when serious question marks began to arise about the strategic wisdom directing the campaign. Israelis accepted that they had to make terrible sacrifices, even pay for their leaders' mistakes, for the greater good. That we seemed to have Uncle Sam's full support made the choice even easier. Now the feeling is that while the public was prepared to grin and bear it, it was the politicians, especially Olmert, who weren't able to go the extra mile. The cabinet's decision on Wednesday to extend the operation by at least two more weeks and to make an all-out push for the Litani, with the evident casualties that would be part and parcel, was supported, according to all the opinion polls, by a wide majority. But the order to halt the troops pending a diplomatic solution in New York was already too much for an overpatient public. Why did Olmert and his ministers falter at the last minute? Was he unable to withstand international pressure at the critical moment? Was the scepter of lengthening casualty lists too much for him? The answer to these questions will probably be stuff for historians, but now many Israelis, including those who sat for a month in stifling bomb shelters, reservists who dropped everything and reported to their units and the families who anxiously awaited a telephone from their sons in Lebanon and dreaded the knock of the local IDF liaison are feeling that their sacrifice has been betrayed. After years of dismissing the UN as an ineffectual and anti-Israel organization, how can Israelis believe that of all the possibilities, it will be the one to make sure that Hizbullah never again threatens our northern towns and villages. Despite all its failings, including the recent ones, there remains only one institution that Israelis firmly trust, and that is the IDF. Now Olmert will go down in history as the prime minister who didn't let the army finish the job. It doesn't matter whether he was right or not to accept the UN resolution. It might well be the best deal Israel could have gotten in the circumstances, that is not how the public perceives it. And if anyone thought that the generals were going to be loyal to their political masters, all you have to do is read the headlines quoting anonymous senior officers telling the media that the government tied their hands. Everyone knows that the generals made a ton of mistakes themselves, without any help from the cabinet, but ultimately, in the popularity sweepstakes, the military beats the politicians hands down, every time. The cease-fire in the north, if it is implemented at all, also signals the end of the political cease-fire. Politicians on the Right and Left are already clamoring for Olmert's head, both wings claiming, from their own point of view, that at least 120 lives have been sacrificed for no real purpose. Of course that doesn't mean that Olmert is about to commit political hara-kiri. Anyone who observed his nine years as mayor of Jerusalem knows that he is quite comfortable swatting away public criticism and a hostile press. He will pay no heed to those in the media who began calling for his resignation over the weekend, and he is more than willing to take on his political rivals. Meanwhile, his coalition seems stable. All the parties' leaders were partners to the war decisions and they will find it hard to jump ship. It's also difficult to see who can mount a real opposition to Olmert. The Left is still powerless, with scant public support. On the Right, Binyamin Netanyahu has yet to regain his credibility, almost totally destroyed in the last election. Of course Netanyahu has acted as an admirable spokesman for Israel, giving the government his unstinting support throughout the crisis, but his efforts were mainly targeted at the foreign audience and it has yet to be seen whether that will be enough to reduce the deeply-held suspicion held toward him in what was formerly the Likud electoral heartland. He would be wise not to pounce too quickly and open himself to accusations of political opportunism at the expense of our soldiers. Right now, he seems to prefer a wiser, long-range strategy, and if he manages to enlist former chief of General Staff Moshe Ya'alon, he will start on the long road to political recovery. Meanwhile, it's hard to see where Olmert goes from here. Save for a dramatic military operation, perhaps a well-deserved attack on the Iranian nuclear project, he has no way to regain his lost credibility. A month and a half ago, the IDF and police were preparing to dismantle three settler outposts, a dress rehearsal for Olmert's master-plan, realignment. Few believe that in the current public climate, especially since the settlers' share in the war's death-toll has been so high, Olmert can go ahead with what was the main plank of his electoral platform. Painful retreats and peace-plans are only possible under popular prime ministers - Menachem Begin with the Egyptian treaty, Yitzhak Rabin at Oslo and Ariel Sharon and his disengagement. A discredited prime minister going ahead with such a controversial plan, whatever its merits, is a recipe for chaos and even civil war. And without realignment, the entire justification for Olmert's premiership will have dissolved. Less than six months since the election and once this war is over, Olmert's sole aim will be to survive as PM. The moment that happens to a prime minister, it's a sure sign that the countdown to his departure has begun.