Critical Currents: Olmert must go

Apologists are united more by a fear of Netanyahu than by any intrinsic belief in Olmert's virtues.

naomi chazan 88 (photo credit: )
naomi chazan 88
(photo credit: )
The publication of the final report of the Winograd Commission this coming week will bring the simmering political scene to a boil. Ehud Olmert is already conducting the fiercest battle of his political career. Concerned with their own survival, detractors within his party are gearing up to demand his resignation. The reinforced Right - led by Binyamin Netanyahu and Avigdor Lieberman - awaits the report with glee. This is its opportunity to oust the prime minister and call for new elections. And only Labor along with, surprisingly, segments of Meretz, remain ambivalent. They should not be: The most vigorous supporters of a negotiated two-state solution should understand that Olmert should go and will go. If they don't act accordingly, they will be compromising their own principles on the altar of political shortsightedness. Labor doves (if not always Ehud Barak) know full well - as do their Meretz counterparts - that there is no objective reason to bolster Olmert at this juncture. The prime minister's integrity has been queried repeatedly for years; several investigations are still pending. His economic and social policies are anathema to the social-democratic teachings of the Left; his behavior in the teachers' and lecturers' strikes was inexcusably passive. And he has failed the ultimate leadership test in the Second Lebanon War. Regardless of the precise contents on the Winograd Commission report, Olmert will be remembered as the prime minister who led the country into a war it did not win despite the heavy human price it exacted. The excuses being offered for propping up the prime minister do not hold water. These revolve, in one form or another, around the diplomatic process set in motion in Annapolis. They rest on the questionable assumption that progress in the negotiations during this critical year rests on Olmert's continued tenure in office. This presumption is faulty. On the most superficial level, there is no reason to think that discussions launched by a lame duck US president and conducted by obviously weak leaders on both sides will be consummated by these very same actors. To the contrary, if past experience is any indication (vide the aftermath of the Madrid conference in 1991) then the initiators of current Israeli-Palestinian negotiations are not the ones who will conclude the agreement. MORE TO the point, there is a growing gap between Ehud Olmert's ostensible commitment to a durable two-state outcome and his policies on the ground. He has consistently reiterated his distaste for unauthorized outposts but done precious little to effect their removal. He has committed himself to easing restrictions on Palestinians, while these have become more stringent than ever. He has vowed to avert a humanitarian crisis in Gaza, but orchestrates a policy which engenders untold deprivation. He has authorized ongoing bombardments on Hamas, thereby contributing to the insecurity of Sderot and its environs. He has promised a settlement freeze, although construction continues apace. The difference between his words and his actions has become a major obstacle to successful negotiations. In this context, the debate in progressive circles over Olmert's intentions versus his capabilities is, at best, somewhat puzzling. At worst, it is simply bizarre. To suggest that Olmert wants to bring about palpable change but is constrained from doing so (by coalition partners, by party renegades, by an all-too-independent military) is to grasp wildly for rationalizations to keep him in office when no real evidence can be mustered to support such a move. Political leaders have always been judged not by their motives but by their actions. WHAT, THEN, explains the willingness of some advocates of a permanent agreement to sustain the Olmert premiership? These apologists are united more by a fear of Netanyahu than by any intrinsic belief in Olmert's virtues. For the Labor Party under Barak, the reasoning goes, it is better to stay in government as long as possible than to face the voters at the polls. For certain voices in Meretz, the specter of a Netanyahu comeback has become all-consuming, to the point of adversely affecting their judgment. Such an eventuality, with all the reservations and trepidations it rightly evokes, cannot be the cause for perpetuating the Olmert incumbency. The resolution of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is not contingent on the political fortunes of any one individual. Those who reject Netanyahu would do well to do something that they have not done sufficiently to date: to differentiate themselves in both thought and action from the hard-line alternative he represents. This means pursuing negotiations systematically and responsibly, while securing the country's boundaries without condoning ongoing violations of human rights. It also implies upholding the dictum that there is no military solution to the conflict and that only a negotiated settlement can assure Israel's future in the long term. Those who represent Israel's substantial peace constituency must display the courage of their convictions. Wrapping Ehud Olmert in cotton wool is therefore thoroughly counterproductive. Ideologically, it whittles down the necessity of reaching a just agreement on core issues. Politically, it effectively reduces policy choices. Electorally, it is ambiguous and unconvincing. And, ultimately, it undermines the built-in logic of the two-state solution and subjugates it to ephemeral political fortunes. Proponents of negotiations must therefore abide by their principles. Meretz cannot even contemplate joining this government. Ehud Barak must keep his word and withdraw from the coalition immediately. Surely they realize that elections are in the offing - either in the spring or, after a period of increasing political turmoil, in the fall - and that the best they can achieve in the interim is to continue to back government moves toward a workable agreement. They owe it to their voters and to society as a whole to sustain the prospect of a better future and to subject this vision to the voters' test. This is the essence of democracy and nobody - least of all the Left - can avoid its full meaning.