Civil Fights: It's not the investigation, stupid

The problem is leaders going against their own previously stated views just to save their skins.

Olmert 88 (photo credit: )
Olmert 88
(photo credit: )
After news of the talks with Syria broke last week, several commentators noted the troubling pattern of prime ministers facing legal or political difficulties launching major diplomatic moves: the Washington and Taba negotiations, launched by Ehud Barak after his government collapsed; the disengagement, launched by Ariel Sharon as a police investigation against him gathered steam; and now the Syria talks, launched when Ehud Olmert was already under police investigation and announced soon after a new and potentially more damaging investigation began. This has generated accusations that such initiatives are cynical attempts to extricate the leader from his legal/political difficulties, even at the expense of Israel's true interests: Major diplomatic moves divert media (and public) attention, make coalition allies reluctant to bolt lest they disrupt "progress toward peace," and even make the legal authorities extra cautious, for the same reason. Yet such accusations miss the point. The problem is not that Barak, Sharon and Olmert all acted after becoming embroiled in difficulties; it is that in each case, their actions directly contradicted their own previously stated views of Israel's interests, with no explanation of their about-face. And that, rather than their legal/political difficulties per se, is what truly enables suspicions that they are sacrificing Israel's well-being to their political survival. Imagine, for instance, that a diehard dove like Yossi Beilin were a) prime minister and b) under police investigation. Would anyone seriously argue that any diplomatic initiative he launched was aimed at saving his political skin? Of course not - because such initiatives clearly accord with his longstanding view of Israel's fundamental interests. The Barak, Sharon and Olmert initiatives, however, were all repudiations of their previous positions. Barak, for instance, quit the Camp David summit in July 2000 - despite having staked his career on its success - after concluding that Yasser Arafat's refusal to budge on key issues made further Israeli concessions foolhardy. Yet at Washington and Taba five months later (December 2000-February 2001), he suddenly offered new concessions, on both borders and Jerusalem, that he had previously deemed unacceptable, even though Arafat still refused to concede the "right of return" or any Jewish connection to the Temple Mount - and even though the intifada, which erupted in September 2000, should have made his Camp David demand for defensible borders more pressing rather than less. And he never explained this reversal. In July, however, Barak's political career still seemed salvageable, as Bill Clinton publicly blamed Arafat for the summit's failure. By December, the intifada had decimated his popularity, and his Knesset support. New elections were imminent, and Barak would be trounced - unless he could regain support from leftists, Arabs and even some peace-hungry centrists by producing an agreement, any agreement, with the Palestinians. Thus Barak abandoned his own red lines, without explanation, when such concessions promised political salvation. And that, rather than his political troubles per se, is what enabled suspicions that he was sacrificing Israel's interests to his political survival. SIMILARLY, SHARON won election in January 2003 by running against his opponent's proposal to withdraw unilaterally from Gaza. Sharon claimed unilateral withdrawal would undermine Israel's security: It would bolster support for terrorism, and establish a terrorist entity on Israel's border whose attacks would be unpreventable once the army left. By autumn 2003, however, Sharon was in trouble: A police investigation was accelerating, the media deemed him corrupt and demanded his ouster, and his public support plummeted. To survive, he needed a distraction, and in December, he produced it: a plan to unilaterally withdraw from Gaza. The trick worked. Allegations of corruption virtually disappeared from the media, replaced by praise for his statesmanship. From an international pariah, he became the world's darling. The police investigation, which had been spurred by media pressure, stalled once this pressure disappeared. And his popularity soared. Yet Sharon never explained his about-face, never even tried to refute his own previous arguments for why unilateral withdrawal was dangerous. He simply abandoned his own red lines without explanation, at a time when this eased his legal/political problems. And that, rather than these problems per se, is what enabled suspicions that he was sacrificing Israel's interests to his political survival. THEN THERE is Olmert, who, in September 2006, declared that while he is premier, "the Golan will remain forever part of Israel." The Golan, he argued, is strategically vital, and Syrian President Bashar Assad is untrustworthy; hence talks aimed at giving Assad the Golan would be foolhardy. The Golan has not suddenly changed, nor has Assad's behavior. He still hosts Palestinian terrorists in Damascus and funnels terrorists into Iraq; his alliance with Iran has only deepened; and his meddling in Lebanon has intensified: witness Hezbollah's recent military putsch, which secured it veto power over Beirut's government. Indeed, even as the secret talks progressed, Assad accelerated arms shipments to Hizbullah, thereby tripling its pre-Lebanon War rocket supply. Just days before the talks went public, the Syrian-sponsored PFLP-GC organization claimed responsibility for a rocket strike on an Ashkelon mall. And three days after the talks were announced, Syrian officials went to Iran to discuss a military defense pact - though ending the Syrian-Iranian alliance is a key Israeli demand in the talks. None of this makes Assad a better peace partner than he was two years ago; quite the contrary. Yet Olmert has never explained why his views on Assad and the Golan changed. Since 2006, however, Olmert's legal troubles have ballooned, as have the media's demands for his head. He needed a distraction to stop the media's hounding, and perhaps also to make the legal authorities fear the diplomatic consequences of indicting him. The Syria talks provide one. Thus as with Barak and Sharon, the problem is not his legal/political troubles per se; it is that he abandoned his own red lines, without explanation, at a time when doing so could alleviate these troubles. And that is what enables suspicions that he is sacrificing Israel's interests to his political survival. Such behavior should be unacceptable. But as long as the tactic keeps working, prime ministers will have every reason to continue this troubling pattern.