Middle Israel: After the fall

The Winograd Commission's scathing interim report will likely end Ehud Olmert's political career.

The Winograd Commission's scathing interim report will likely end Ehud Olmert's political career. Hopefully, it will also end the political era of arrogance, frivolity and corruption with which he has become identified. The commission made it plain that Olmert's failures are not only in the results of his actions and inactions, but also in the attitude he displayed while waging war without seeing a detailed military plan, or even just demanding one. True, the commission also harshly attacked Dan Halutz for having imposed his sweeping belief in air power, a military thinking that was born in the First World War and died in the Second. However, the report also made it clear that Olmert did not study the IDF's flaws before assigning it the tasks it ended up failing to perform. It is that scrutiny that is exactly what the prime minister's job is about, and what Olmert had us believe he would deliver once at the national helm. And yet, the public's verdict on Olmert will not merely reflect one situation's roots and aftermath, which under other circumstances he might have been forgiven. Olmert's problem is that besides being linked to governmental ineptitude, he is also identified with the moral deterioration of our politics. OLMERT REPRESENTS a new Israeli political breed, one that cares less about ideas and more about power. That is how, as mayor of Jerusalem, he accumulated real estate for himself and, as prime minister, he appointed a finance minister who is now suspended due to allegations of embezzlement and a justice minister who was later convicted of sexual misconduct. Proverbially, that justice minister's forceful insertion of his tongue into a female colleague's mouth happened some two hours after news had broken of the killing and kidnapping of seven IDF soldiers, and moments before he joined the cabinet meeting Olmert assembled in order to wage his ill-conceived war. People with a deeper sense of public responsibility and historic awareness would have considered the precariousness of the moment, the Galilee's vulnerability and the captives' tragedy. Yet Olmert's justice minister was built differently; he used those foreboding moments to flirt with a secretary half his age. These incidents are not isolated. President Moshe Katsav, who is expected to be indicted for sexual misconduct as well, does not currently belong to Olmert's party, but the two are quintessential products of an establishment that has dominated our public domain for the past 30 years. There is a pattern here. The man Olmert appointed as head of the Income Tax Authority was arrested in the winter for allegedly peddling tax breaks to cronies, along with Olmert's senior aide for the past 30 years, Shula Zaken. Now, despite the general disgust all this has generated, Olmert's leading candidate for finance minister, in place of the prime minister's longtime friend who is suspected of embezzlement, is another longtime friend, the justice minister who was making out while Olmert was making war. THERE IS a pervasive thirst in Israel today for a political overhaul. Middle Israelis feel that last summer's month-long bombardment of the North was tied by the umbilical cord to their leaders' moral bankruptcy. They don't abuse funds, power or women. There is no way they will accept this among their leaders. Olmert cannot survive the pressure that all this will now generate, even if his identification with the system's corruption is moral rather than legal for now. Many will now focus on the identity of his likely successor. That would be a shame. The real question is whether the current mayhem will not just replace, but also reinvent our political leadership. The answer is that it will, though this will take time. It will also have to involve our friends abroad, much the way the economic crisis of the mid-1980s was ultimately resolved. Back then, with inflation raging at 415 percent and foreign currency reserves rapidly dwindling, it took American inspiration - led by secretary of state George Schultz - for us to emancipate the Bank of Israel, abolish subsidies, slash an unaffordable defense budget, freeze prices and public-sector wages and jump-start a privatization and deregulation process. It was painful, but the long-term result is one of the world's most vibrant and exciting economies. Now our political system demands open-heart surgery on a similar scale. Currently, Israel is the world's only veteran democracy in which not one lawmaker is elected personally and regionally. Instead, we vote for parties, which in turn create candidate lists with varying degrees of transparency and only minimal concern for merit. Consequently, legislators owe their appointments to party systems rather than constituencies. At the same time, about one in four lawmakers ends up in the cabinet, whether as a minister or deputy minister. Consequently, lawmakers habitually invest themselves in a race for executive office, while ordinary, Sisyphean parliamentary work is disparaged, and therefore also devalued. The quest to join the executive, and unseat those already there, has created dizzying turnovers, including, for instance, eight foreign ministers, eight finance ministers and six defense ministers over the past decade alone. Set in this landscape, the very substance of government work is misunderstood, beset by a culture of ministerial shots from the hip, patronage appointments, bureaucratic lethargy and overall scorn for planning, consultation and follow up. This is the ecosystem within which Winograd found that Olmert - like Ariel Sharon and Ehud Barak before him - did not consult his cabinet, that his defense minister did not consult his ministry's experts, and that Lt.-Gen. Halutz did not even assemble the General Staff once throughout the war. To be fruitful, the political mayhem that is now upon us should generate reforms that will draw better people to politics and redefine the government's working methods. The former will happen when we elect lawmakers directly, and the latter when the Knesset focusses on supervising rather than manning the government, while ministers understand their spheres of responsibility and are loyal to the prime minister rather than to themselves. Israel has previously shown a remarkable ability to look failure in the eye and emerge invigorated. This is what it must now do - again. The Israeli way, whereby ignorant hacks can rise to positions as sensitive as defense minister, while the Treasury, Justice Ministry, Income Tax Authority and presidency are snatched by alleged felons and a conceited prime minister launches a war pretty much alone and on the spur of the moment, constitutes a threat to our hard-won state's future. It must be brought to an end.