The wheels are coming off the spin machine

Did Olmert consider during Kollek's funeral that he might have been better off remaining J'lem's mayor?

Olmert 298.88 (photo credit: AP)
Olmert 298.88
(photo credit: AP)
Did Ehud Olmert consider for just a minute during Teddy Kollek's funeral on Thursday morning that perhaps he might have been better off staying in his old job as Jerusalem mayor? Kollek did it for 28 years and was given a hero's farewell. Olmert left the comfortable perch after nine years, and three years later he was suddenly propelled into the top job by Ariel Sharon's second stroke. Exactly a year later, he had to be asking himself if it was all worth it, if not at Kollek's grave then later that night while flying back from Sharm e-Sheikh and his worst trip since taking office. Olmert didn't stroll back to talk with the reporters on the plane during the hour-long flight home, but his new press secretary, Ya'akov Galanti, was sent twice. While the plane was still rolling on the runway, he rushed to issue a blanket denial of the reports that had broke on Channels 1 and 2, just when Olmert was starting his press conference with President Hosni Mubarak, that he had decided to fire Defense Minister Amir Peretz - just in time for reporters to phone their offices before takeoff. Half an hour later, Galanti was back trying to put a more positive spin on the headlines coming out of the summit with Mubarak. Contrary to reports, he insisted, the talks had been conducted in "a good atmosphere." Actually, it had been a disastrous evening. Olmert entered the meeting without even being properly briefed on the operation that had just gone wrong in Ramallah. Mubarak, who had seen the whole thing on Al-Jazeera, voiced his displeasure for all to hear. Perhaps that's why Olmert's military secretary, Maj.-Gen. Gadi Shamni, instead of being whisked away from the airport in the prime minister's motorcade, was left to queue along with the rest of the passengers for the single tired officer manning the passport counter. The summit with Mubarak was originally planned a couple of weeks ago following Olmert's meeting with Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas and hopes had been high that a breakthrough in the negotiations over Cpl. Gilad Shalit's release would be announced. Just how bad the summit really turned out only became clear when the Arabic text of Mubarak's statements at the press conference was double checked; the official translator at the press conference had taken the edge off them. Mubarak had actually equated the violent actions of the Palestinian and Israeli sides, calling them both "terror," said Egypt would not block Hamas money transfers through the Rafah Crossing as long as they were done openly and in accordance with Egyptian law, and announced that if a nuclear arms race broke out between Israel and Iran, Egypt would obtain similar weapons. But Olmert had more immediate political problems to worry about during the flight. It's hard to believe that such a political pro could have ordered such a spin to be issued, or even have been aware that the Peretz story was about to air. It couldn't have come at a worse time, while he was meeting Mubarak. As spin it made little sense. As much as he'd love to, Olmert can't fire Peretz without triggering Labor's departure from the coalition he worked so hard to build. Olmert would do much better to wait for the Winograd Committee's interim report or the Labor leadership primary in May forces Peretz out. As spin it would have been much too transparent. It would have seemed as if he were desperately trying to move public attention away from the house arrest of his trusted bureau chief, Shula Zaken, over allegations of complicity in the Tax Authority scandal. It makes much more sense for such a story to have come from somewhere in the vicinity of Peretz, in the hope that it would make his colleagues rally around him, or the direction of aspiring defense minister Ehud Barak, preparing to mount his own challenge against Peretz in the primary. But an effective media operation isn't measured only by its ability to put out effective spins, it also has to be alert and able to put the lid on unfavorable spins. Olmert inherited the best spin machine in the business from Sharon but it seems to have gone awry. During Thursday's trip, Galanti was still being mentored by his predecessor, Asi Shariv, and both seemed to have been caught unaware. Sharon's chief spin-doctors, Eyal Arad and Lior Horev, both stayed with Olmert and ran his election campaign, but have mainly kept their distance since. They still work for Kadima and were in charge of the campaign in last week's local election in Givatayim, where the party succeeded in forcing a second round and now still has a chance of an historic upheaval in what was an eternal Labor stronghold. But Olmert cannot rely on their personal loyalty any longer. Kadima is rapidly turning into a treacherous home-ground for the prime minister. It's not only the increasingly open challenge to his leadership being mounted by Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, who has unveiled her own peace plan and is delivering veiled criticisms of Olmert almost daily; it's also Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz, who in a little-noticed visit to Sderot last week attacked the restraint against the continued Kassam attacks, a policy to which Olmert continues to cling. Last week wasn't all bad news for Olmert. His government pushed through the 2007 state budget with surprisingly little dissent in the ranks; that seemed to provide his coalition with breathing space. However the confrontations looming within both Kadima and Labor could easily change that.