Middle Israel: The man who saved Olmert

Lieberman deserves praise for actually paying thought to Israel's fundamental problems.

amotz asa el 88 (photo credit: )
amotz asa el 88
(photo credit: )
Got to hand it to Ehud Olmert: One year after leading the IDF to humiliation and the North to devastation, prospects for his political survival seem as bright, and punishing, as a midsummer sun at high noon above the Dead Sea. How did this happen? How did Olmert remain at the helm even after Dan Halutz and Amir Peretz were finally evicted from it? How has he put the Winograd Commission to sleep? How could he ignore mass rallies demanding his resignation? How can he abuse with impunity the state comptroller, who has just accused him of abandoning the entire Galilee to Hizbullah's devices? The answer lies in one word: Lieberman. AVIGDOR LIEBERMAN, the burly, thickly accented, Moldavian-born former bouncer who curiously answers to the female nickname Yvette, is a textbook nationalist. Like Richard Nixon, Charles de Gaulle and Augusto Pinochet, he believes in the tribe's pride, the state's authority, the government's delivery and the markets' freedom. He distrusts the Arabs, abhors their politicians, has nothing good to say about the Oslo Accords and even less about disengagement, not to mention Olmert's long-defunct plan to dismantle all West Bank settlements, including Nokdim, where Lieberman lives. In addition, he is a great believer in governmental reform. Put together, these inclinations meant he had no place in Olmert's bosom, certainly not as far as Lieberman's voters were concerned. But Lieberman, the seasoned producer of last year's biggest electoral success, was outmaneuvered. Olmert may not have known how to inspire the generals to win the war he started, but he sure knew how to manipulate the politicians surrounding him, and among them Lieberman proved pivotal. Politically baptized by Binyamin Netanyahu's fire, first as director-general of the Likud in 1993, then as director-general of the Prime Minister's Office, Lieberman and Bibi soon had a falling out as deep as a Russian snow. Still, Olmert took no chances. "If I don't snatch the dude," he must have told himself, "he and Bibi might yet mend fences," a prospect that - according to his circle - actually never crossed Bibi's mind. And so, last summer, when it already became clear that Labor would eventually vomit up Amir Peretz, Olmert gently pickpocketed Lieberman from the opposition, despite his natural place there and his unnatural place alongside Olmert. And Olmert knew how to coax Lieberman, a bulldozer who craves action. By offering him the Orwellian-sounding title of minister for strategic threats, which entailed regular access to highly classified material, Olmert was bringing juicy red meat to a bulldog's nostrils. Then, when he served it on a plate of governmental reform peppered with an amorphous promise for an investigation into the war's management, Lieberman stormed the bait. Olmert, at the same time, wrapped a collar around his neck. That is how predictions made last year about Olmert's imminent downfall proved premature. Heck, Olmert now feels so secure in his position that the other day he even said he would run for reelection, thus sending a message to all his rivals in Kadima that to see him go they would have to fight. Waiting for him to fall by himself, like Newton's apple, is about as practical as waiting for the pope to retire. Last week, however, the time came to deliver, and Olmert once again proved that while promising is a central theme of his act, delivering is not. And so, after having initially - that is, when he needed him - promised the coalition's backing for his governmental reform, Olmert let Lieberman see last week a sweeping majority of 57 to 16 (with five abstentions) reject his faction's bill for separation of the powers and a presidential government. Olmert himself, who doubtfully even realized he was betraying the man who had saved him from the hangman, didn't bother to attend. THE REFORM BILL, which was sponsored by Estherina Tartman, Lia Shemtov and Sofa Landver, is problematic. Rather than weakening the parties and empowering the citizens, it proposes a Putin-style presidential system in which the prime minister and his deputy are elected directly and the Knesset cannot call an early election, though it can theoretically fire a prime minister, with the support of 80 Knesset members. Lieberman deserves praise for actually paying thought to Israel's fundamental problems; that is so much more than the common Israeli lawmaker, who thinks first of himself, then of his party and only then about you and me, not to mention the world, about which he often hasn't heard at all other than as a destination for junkets. Lieberman, a practical ideologue who unlike Likud's armchair patriots actually lives across the Green Line, brought with him to the Knesset several serious people. Discussing with them Israel's political deformities is far more enlightening than it is with most other Knesset members. However, what they focus on is governmental stability, which their bill wisely sought to nurture by banning Knesset members from serving in the cabinet (other than the PM and his deputy) and by shrinking the cabinet to 10 ministers. Yet the Lieberman bill ignored the way the Knesset itself gets elected. Lieberman opposes district elections for the Knesset because "Israel is too small and its problems are national rather than local," his aide Yossi Levi explained. A survey of his faction revealed that only five of its 11 members agree with their boss, while four think that at least some Knesset members should be elected regionally (one had yet to make up her mind). Now one wonders: Did Lieberman oppose electoral reform because he wanted to pander to Shas, which like all the religious and Arab parties opposes any district elections, or because it would burden the authoritarian government he would like to some day head? Either way, Lieberman was just handed a painful reminder that there can be no shortcuts in his path. To reform, he must start with the individual Israeli politician, who is substandard, and not with the government, which is merely his product; for allies, he should look more to the average voter and less to people like Eli Yishai, who also betrayed him on last week's bill; and to restore his hard-won legitimacy, he should join his voters' preference, Netanyahu, and end his expedient pact with Olmert, or he will be for them what he has long been for Olmert - a laughingstock.