Editor's Notes: Bursting the Bubble

Olmert may be convinced that he is indispensable, but his continued tenure threatens to stain every national project on which embarks.

david horovitz 224.88 (photo credit: )
david horovitz 224.88
(photo credit: )
The opportunity arose earlier this week to ask a very senior Israeli politician whether Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has truly internalized that it's over - that he's not going to be elected prime minister again, that his party is not going to choose him afresh as its leader, that the public is telling him not to let the door hit him on his way out. Well, said this very senior pol, I've told him that he's finished, and that he'd be well advised to depart the scene gracefully. And, the pol went on, Olmert knows I'm his friend and speak to him in the spirit of that friendship - but he also knows I have my own political interests, so I can't be sure he's gotten the message. Evidently, the prime minister hasn't. For, later in the week, it was reported that while Olmert has consented to the holding of a Kadima leadership primary late this summer, he does not regard such a ballot as representing his demise. Rather, he intends to be one of the candidates and to win, believing that his lawyers' devastating cross-examination of the troublesome Morris Talansky on July 17 will shred the cash-stuffed envelope evidence and pave the way for glorious rehabilitation. Reportedly, too, Olmert is comparing his current battle for survival with the one he waged last year, after the publication of the first report of the Winograd Committee's investigation into the Second Lebanon War. If he could survive the avalanche of pressure to quit that descended with Winograd's scathing critique, he is said to argue, he can prevail in the Talansky affair too. Inside the Olmert bubble, presumably, he is personally indispensable to the new negotiating effort with Syria, to the Gaza truce and the race against the (Bush) clock for an accord with the Palestinians, and to wise oversight of the face-off with Iran. Inside the Olmert bubble, Israel would be lost without him. If this is indeed the thinking, it is woefully misguided. At issue now is not merely the recent Talansky allegations, but the sheer accumulation of public concerns - inexpert and arrogant leadership in the war; one, two, three, four and now five corruption investigations; the ducking and diving by lawyers and aides so at odds with the professions of innocence; the untenable distraction the legal battles constitute when Israel cries out for a fully focused prime minister. And the acute misgivings over the prime minister's continued tenure threaten to stain every national project upon which he embarks with the imprint of his survive-at-all-costs desperation - discrediting and undermining the Syrian talks initiative, the rush for a deal with Mahmoud Abbas, and more. Even Yehezkel Dror, a member of the Winograd Committee, has now publicly endorsed the conclusion that Olmert must go. It is said that the committee had anticipated that its initial report would force his ouster last year, and was dismayed that this did not come to pass. But Dror made the demand explicit on Wednesday. Noting that the panel had found Olmert to lack the necessary "head for strategy" to run the war effectively in 2006, he lamented that the prime minister had failed since then to compensate for that incapacity by bolstering the National Security Council to weigh in on strategic matters. Compounded by the blow to Israeli democracy inherent in Olmert's acknowledgement that, for whatever reason, he had accepted large sums of money in cash, said Dror, there was sadly now no alternative but for the prime minister to depart. And yet, while Israel does not deserve and can ill-withstand a bitter prime ministerial war of attrition, the small crumb of comfort we might derive from an Olmertian reluctance to depart the scene until electorally ejected is that, if he does fight on to defeat at the ballot box, at least he will not be able to claim that he was brought down in a subversion of the democratic process, forced out by media critics and political rivals rather than by the wider public. In essence, if he defiantly runs for election in a Kadima leadership vote, he will be giving his party the chance to regain some of the public credibility it jettisoned last year - when it failed to act upon what amounted to a Winograd indictment and oust a prime minister so devastatingly blamed by the panel he had selected for mis-stewarding the war he had chosen to fight. Kadima has a potentially vital role to play in the pragmatic heart of Israeli politics. Some of its senior figures are astute, charismatic and competent leaders. This would be the chance for them, and for their party's nationwide membership, to assert themselves. IN THE background, meanwhile, looms Labor's reinvigorated threat to bring down the government if Kadima doesn't bring down its leader. Plainly, Labor does not want new elections. The polls suggest it would fare abysmally. Its leadership complains that "blameless Labor" should not have to pay the price of Olmert's failures and his party's passivity. Defense Minister Ehud Barak, furthermore, argues that the national interest, and not just his and Labor's, requires both avoiding early general elections and maintaining Labor's membership in government. Barak is known to take a dim view of some of his cabinet colleagues and, unsurprisingly, to regard his own occupation of the defense minister's post as central to Israel's well-being. He believes, for instance, that only his presence in that job, and his insistence on greater preparation, ensured that last September's air strike on Syria's mysterious nuclear facility was carried out successfully. He wonders grimly what to make of one potential successor, Shaul Mofaz, given Mofaz's recent irresponsible comments about Israel attacking Iran - remarks that enable Iran to depict itself as the injured party, push the mullahs toward separating out and better defending their nuclear facilities, and expose Israel to charges that it is impelling the international community and America in particular into war; remarks that appeared to have been delivered for the sole, selfish purpose of advancing Mofaz's hawkish credentials and thus his leadership profile. More importantly on Iran, Barak knows more intimately than almost anybody else the time frame for grappling with the ayatollahs' nuclear challenge - and the potential complication of Israel finding itself in the midst of debilitating electioneering as 2008 runs down. Barak also considers his personal oversight of the nascent, tenuous Gaza cease-fire to be vital. As he has made clear publicly, Barak doubts any truce will hold, but strongly believes Israel has an obligation to give the arrangement a try. He thinks Israel is on an almost inevitable military collision course with Hamas, but he shares IDF Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi's reservations about a major ground operation. He worries that even the elimination of the entire current Hamas leadership would do nothing to weaken the Gaza public's support for Islamist government, and that in fact such an assault, if attempted by Israel, might serve only to bolster support for Hamas in the West Bank as well. He does not believe a truce needed to have been conditioned on the guaranteed freedom of Gilad Schalit, remembering that Israel lost 170 people in the ostensible, and failed, effort to free Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev. And he is known to be singularly unimpressed by the loud demands for greater military force in Gaza from the likes of Deputy Premier Haim Ramon, whom he regards as complicit in the 2006 Hizbullah fiasco. DESPITE ALL these reasons for staying, Labor insiders are insistent that if Kadima, however improbably, opts to stand by Olmert, Labor will pull the plug on the coalition. Witheringly critical himself of Olmert's leadership in the Second Lebanon War, Barak, they say, struggled for a long time after the first Winograd Report to balance the conflicting needs for accountability from Olmert and stability in Israel's governance. But that struggle has now been resolved. He is adamant, they say, that Olmert must go. And if necessary, yes, Labor will pay the electoral price of forcing Olmert's departure. Labor's sense of gloom may be exaggerated. A lot of Kadima votes will be up for grabs if it is Labor, not Kadima, that ultimately intervenes to end the Olmert era. Labor could also earn considerable further credit if it champions the desperately needed structural reform of the electoral system. Yes, Labor would likely pay a price for prompting elections when its standing is so low. But nothing compared to the price the public would extract from Kadima for choosing not to puncture Olmert's bubble... or that Labor would ultimately pay if, come the moment of truth, it changed tack and succumbed to Olmert's survival strategy.