Editor's Notes: No longer the caretaker

Ehud Olmert would have us believe that his time has come.

david horovitz 224.88 (photo credit: )
david horovitz 224.88
(photo credit: )
At a table in the bustling lobby of the Daniel Hotel in Herzliya, a couple of hours before Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was due to give his much-anticipated address there on Tuesday night, a small group of friends and close aides to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon sat talking. Journalist Uri Dan, peeling away for a few minutes, didn't want to discuss how effectively, or otherwise, Olmert was performing in the caretaker role. He didn't want to speculate as to what the APM might say in his speech. He would not be drawn on how well Olmert might cope if the nation were plunged into crisis. "I have only one thing on my mind right now," said Dan, "and that is thinking positively about Arik's recovery, about him disproving the premature eulogies." Ra'anan Gissin, Sharon's longtime, rasping, passionate, English-language spokesman, was a little more forthcoming. Olmert "hasn't made any mistakes," he said. "He understands the need to coordinate with the Americans, to engage with Washington. He's placing the same stress on the rule of law, in terms of illegal outposts, that Sharon placed. In short, he's running Israel the way Sharon would have run it." Gissin, too, was speaking of Olmert in caretaker terms - as the man technically filling in for a prime minister whose return, however improbable, was still not being formally discounted. Later on that evening, when many more people than the basement hall at the Daniel could comfortably accommodate had been squeezed into their seats just ahead of the 8 p.m. Channel 2 news deadline, and Olmert himself appeared at the podium, he too began his address in caretaker mode. His first words were the appropriately deferential and poignant acknowledgement that "unfortunate circumstances have led to my appearance before you here this evening in place of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon." His last sentences, as well, included "my wishes for a speedy recovery to the man who, over the past five years, has led us into a reality in which there is a chance for a better future." But in between, at just about the midpoint of a speech delivered with forceful confidence, Olmert signaled a readily perceptible shift - his own transition from the role of interim replacement for a temporarily incapacitated leader to would-be prime minister in his own right. "The Government of Israel, under my leadership," he said at the start of a sentence, and went on to discuss Israel's insistence on Palestinian fulfillment of the road map. "The government of Israel, under my leadership…" A banal phrase, when delivered by a prime minister. But from the deputy, from the stand-in: an unmistakable assertion of political intent. MUCH HAS been made of Olmert's purported readiness, should the public place their trust in him on March 28, for a second stage of unilateral withdrawal. This is being derived from the phrase in his address in which, rather than explicitly rejecting the notion of "another disengagement," he said only that "we would prefer an agreement." Many commentators have seen in this a dramatic departure from the Sharon vision, as underlined by the prime minister's repeated insistence, before his hospitalization, that there would be no further unilateral West Bank pullback under a Kadima-led government. Looking back at what Sharon had to say from this same Herzliya Conference podium two years ago, however, in the speech in which he unveiled the whole idea of disengagement, it is striking how vague the prime minister was then about its scope and scale. What evolved into the withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and a pullback from parts of northern Samaria was certainly not specified in that bombshell speech of December 2003. If anything, in fact, Sharon created the impression of a pullback yet more dramatic than that actually implemented last summer. He spoke of a grand redeployment that would "reduce as much as possible the number of Israelis located in the heart of the Palestinian population." And this phrase was not uttered in the context of the Gaza Strip. In fact, Sharon didn't single out Gaza at any point in that speech. He was talking about reducing the number of Israelis living in the midst of Palestinians anywhere and everywhere. He spoke of redeploying the IDF along "new security lines" and changing "the deployment of settlements" - again not remotely suggesting that he was primarily thinking of Gaza because, presumably, he wasn't. Thoroughly aware that the country would be burning for specifics, he went so far as to acknowledge, "I know you would like to hear names, but we should leave something for later." Placed up against Sharon's Herzliya appearance, then, Olmert's speech on Tuesday, far from supersizing a limited disengagement vision, amounts to a tentative embrace of the all-encompassing original plan. Where Olmert did disengage emphatically from the man he termed "one of our greatest commanders," however, was in explaining the imperative for pulling back. For Sharon, it was all about security: "The purpose of the Disengagement Plan is to reduce terror as much as possible, and grant Israeli citizens the maximum level of security," he said in 2003, returning to that theme time and again in his speech. "The Disengagement Plan is meant to grant maximum security and minimize friction between Israelis and Palestinians… The Disengagement Plan is a security measure…It is a step Israel will take in the absence of any other option, in order to improve its security." But for Olmert, it is all about demography: "The existence of a Jewish majority in the State of Israel cannot coexist with the continued control over the Palestinian population in Judea, Samaria and the Gaza Strip," he said on Tuesday. The need to ensure "the existence of the State of Israel as a Jewish country obligates relinquishing parts of the Land of Israel. This is not a relinquishing of the Zionist idea, rather the essential realization of the Zionist goal - ensuring the existence of a Jewish and democratic state in the Land of Israel. In order to ensure the existence of a Jewish national home, we will not be able to continue ruling over the territories in which the majority of the Palestinian population lives. We must create a clear boundary as soon as possible, one which will reflect the demographic reality on the ground." Though less dramatically different, one also sensed a greater bitterness than Sharon might have allowed himself when Olmert spoke of the government's commitment to dismantle illegal West Bank outposts. Sharon in 2003 noted that "the State of Israel is governed by law, and the issue of the outposts is no exception. I understand the sensitivity; we will try to do this in the least painful way possible, but the unauthorized outposts will be dismantled. Period." And then he did next-to-nothing about them for the next two years. Compare that with Olmert's language, possibly informed by the recent clashes in Hebron: "The Government of Israel will not be deterred by the threats of a minority of lawbreakers. The unauthorized outposts will be dismantled, and I have already given the appropriate instructions in this regard to our security forces and those entrusted with upholding the law. We will forcefully defend the values of the rule of law, even when attacked from within." And Olmert was unarguably warmer than Sharon when speaking to the Palestinians, certainly warmer than the Sharon of December 2003. The prime minister urged them to "abandon the path of terror and let us together stop the bloodshed. Let us move forward together toward peace." His successor, by contrast, was almost biblically poetic, employing cadences that all but recalled Naomi's embrace of Ruth: "Their welfare is our welfare," he said of the Palestinians, "their well-being is our well-being, their stability is our stability." It was an attempt at empathy rendered hollow by the Palestinian vote just 24 hours later. ARIEL SHARON had been in hospital for 37 days on the Tuesday that Ehud Olmert spoke in Herzliya. The prime minister's friends, his aides and doubtless much of the country may have expected Olmert to deliver a caretaker's address, a speech loyal to the implausible notion that Sharon would yet return to retake the reins. He did no such thing. Instead we witnessed the first campaign address, complete with personalized contours that risk alienating some and may draw in others, by a man now openly determined to persuade us that he is nobody's stand-in. Ehud Olmert would have us believe that his time has come. And now, after so many Palestinians rejected his call for them to eschew Hamas extremism, and instead elected as their leadership a terror group avowedly committed to achieving Israel's demise, we are all going to see how he copes amid crisis.