Interesting Times: Olmert's big shoes

How can Olmert make Truman's shoes fit and become Sharon's true successor?

saul singer 88 (photo credit: )
saul singer 88
(photo credit: )
On April 12, 1945 Franklin Delano Roosevelt died in office, having led America through a devastating war and the longest presidency it had known. No one could imagine him not being president. The vice president, Harry Truman, had only been sworn in 82 days before, was largely unknown, and had only partially overcome a reputation as a country bumpkin and political hack. Ariel Sharon's extended term as premier was cruelly cut short at the height of his political predominance. Ehud Olmert is perhaps not as unknown and untested as Truman was, but he is seen primarily as a political animal without the "receipts" that Sharon has gathered as a general and through six decades of service. Like Truman, Olmert finds himself stepping into the shoes of a colossus. He must somehow become a person whom the Israeli public, and the world, can see comfortably wearing them, as if they were his own. How can he do this? First, he should keep in mind another American political precedent, that of the 1988 presidential race between George Bush (the father) and Michael Dukakis. Dukakis, the Democrat, was initially favored because after eight years of Ronald Reagan's presidency the public was supposedly ready for a change. Instead Bush, a lackluster figure whose main credential was having been at Reagan's side for those eight years, won the race because he was seen as the closest thing to being Reagan's heir. The Israeli public, even more than Americans back then, is looking to vote for the leader who most resembles his predecessor, whom they would vote for if they could. Olmert, as Sharon's legal and ideological deputy and the inheritor of his new party, is clearly best positioned to assume this role. But then there is the question of those shoes. Olmert still has to show that he is up to filling them. For this, he must above all display two seemingly contradictory characteristics: strength and humility. Sharon's power stemmed from the public's trust that he was a security hawk who would keep them safe while at the same time making dramatic and creative moves to improve Israel's strategic position, even if those moves involved painful concessions. Even though Olmert comes from a right-wing background, the public does not sense that he feels their security needs in his bones. On the contrary: He is perceived as being on Sharon's left flank. Previously he had burned his bridges in the Likud when, as mayor of Jerusalem, he gave Ehud Barak his stamp of approval. Accordingly, Olmert's first challenge is not to show that he represents Sharon's new disengagement paradigm, but that he does not represent disengagement on steroids. At the same time, he cannot come out swinging with bold moves, as if the public had already chosen him as prime minister. He has to strike a delicate balance between being Sharon's successor and his own man. And because politicians are known for their immense egos, Olmert should show that he has the humility to recognize that he did not achieve his position solely through his own merit, but through the misfortune that befell his mentor. IN 11 days Olmert will likely stand in for Sharon at the annual Herzliya conference, where the prime minister unveiled disengagement in 2003. Naturally, Olmert will reprise Sharon's November statement launching Kadima, in which he defended disengagement but tried to draw a line, claiming he had "no plans" for further withdrawals and that the only plan was the road map. Almost no one believed Sharon then, since there was no reason to form Kadima if disengagement was an end point - but they were willing to trust that Sharon wouldn't run to do more withdrawals. Olmert cannot automatically expect such trust, even if he says the same things Sharon said, or tries to sound more categorical. Yet there is a way he can do all the things he needs to do at once - bolster his right flank, demonstrate both continuity and leadership, and reveal a skill that he happens to possess where Sharon was weakest: articulating the wider context of his policies. Sharon never really tried to put disengagement into a regional, let alone global, context. There remains an imperative to do so. As the Reut Institute's Gidi Grinstein explains elsewhere on today's pages, the disengagement paradigm's competition is with negotiation-based models - whether of Yossi Beilin's Left, which believes that a deal is readily available, or of Binyamin Netanyahu's Right, which is trying for the best possible quid pro quo. When Yasser Arafat was around, and now that the Palestinian side seems to be both radicalizing and falling apart, not negotiating seems self-evident. But Sharon rarely articulated the real reason not to negotiate. It was not Palestinian terrorism or disarray per se, but the Palestinian and wider Arab refusal to recognize - beyond Israel's de facto existence - the right of the Jewish people to restore their sovereignty in the Land of Israel. Israel needs to explain to the world, including even the United States, that, fundamentally, the absence of peace does not come from Israeli settlements and Palestinian terrorism. Rather, Palestinian terror represents, writ small, the real genocidal objective most recently expressed by Iran's president - the destruction of Israel. Olmert should point out that the Arab world could, at any moment, accelerate the creation of a Palestinian state by joining Egypt and Jordan in making peace with Israel, while depriving terrorism of its raison d'etre by signaling that the war to destroy Israel is over. And he should pledge that Israeli unilateralism - with or without further withdrawals - will continue so long as the Arab world as a whole does not fulfill the most basic prerequisite for a negotiating partner: demonstrating that the argument with Israel is truly over borders and Palestinian self-determination, and not over Israel's existence. If he does this, he might - like Harry Truman, who became the architect of the "containment" policy that ultimately withstood and won the Cold War - transcend his status as an inheritor by happenstance and become Sharon's true successor. [email protected]

- Editorial Page Editor Saul Singer is author of the book, Confronting Jihad: Israel's Struggle & the World After 9/11