Politics: The spoils of victory

Claiming responsibility while denying defeat, Ehud Olmert now must win the confidence of his electorate.

olmert reaches in pocket (photo credit: AP)
olmert reaches in pocket
(photo credit: AP)
Wars not won have this funny knack of destroying political careers.Look what happened to Golda Meir, who resigned in 1974 shortly after the Yom Kippur War - a month after the Agranat Commission of Inquiry probing that war released its intermediate findings - because of her feelings of responsibility. Or look at Menachem Begin, who voluntarily left the Prime Minister's Office in 1983 after the first Lebanon War because of his sense of heavy responsibility for that misbegotten adventure. And now look at Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, a man who - like Meir and Begin - has taken upon himself ultimate responsibility for a war. "I want to make one thing clear," Olmert said at a speech in Haifa to the heads of local councils Monday evening. "The responsibility for the decision to go to war, to react with military force, not to keep quiet over the attack on our soldiers, citizens and sovereignty, as well as the responsibility for the results of the war, is wholly mine." Judging by the widespread public perception that this war was not exactly a shining Israeli victory, one might expect that having accepted full responsibility for the war, Olmert would draw the conclusions. If the war failed, and he admitted responsibility for the war, then shouldn't he - like Meir and Begin - step aside? Perhaps - at least, if the war failed. But Olmert, as he made clear a number of times this week, doesn't think Israel lost this war. On the contrary, he thinks Israel's strategic position is far better today than before three soldiers were killed and Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev were kidnapped on July 12. In his mind, therefore, there is no need for a State Commission of Inquiry, and definitely no need for him to politically fall on his sword. "Losers, resign!" screamed out the words on wall posters around the capital this week, written over pictures of Olmert, Defense Minister Amir Peretz and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni. "Losers, set up a real committee of inquiry" was the unmistakable "music" blasted by a small group of protesters at the Wohl Rose Garden outside the Prime Minister's office. To which Olmert's reply this week was simple: "What, we lost? We didn't lose." At Sunday's cabinet meeting, Olmert remarked that had anyone said before the war that "in another month and a half an international force and the Lebanese army would move south; that UN Security Council Resolution 1559 would begin to be implemented; that UN Secretary General Kofi Annan would say that the international force could dismantle Hizbullah [sic]; that there would be an embargo on arms to Lebanon; supervision on the border crossings, and all this while the IDF was in Lebanon and has not been drawn into confrontations; and that there is a sea and air embargo on the country - we would say that person was fantasizing and that it was not necessary to set unrealistic goals but rather realistic ones." ON MONDAY, Olmert pretty much repeated the same argument in his nationally broadcast address in Haifa, ticking off what he said were the war's achievements. Then he backed up this point-of-view from an authoritative source: the White House. "It is clear to the world that Hizbullah has been beaten," Olmert said. "The president of the United States, which is Israel's great friend, George Bush, said it best a couple of days ago when he said that very soon it would become clear just how much Israel won, and how much Hizbullah was defeated, as were those who stood behind them." On Tuesday, he went to the North and mocked Hizbullah head Hassan Nasrallah, saying that while Nasrallah (widely perceived in the Islamic world as the victor) was holed-up in his bunker, afraid to come out in public, he - Ehud Olmert - was tooling around the North in broad daylight. Further, in a comment that seemed a rather odd and gratuitous form of gloating, he said, "Two weeks after the war I am the person giving permission for planes to land and take off in Beirut, and that shows you that something happened here." And then again on Wednesday, with Annan standing at his side, Olmert said that UN Security Council resolution 1701 could be a "cornerstone" for creating "a new reality with Israel and Lebanon," something that most Israelis - of course - would perceive as quite a positive achievement. FOLKS, THERE'S a pattern here. You might think we lost, but Olmert is convinced we won; and if we won, what's all the noise about? Ironically, Olmert's argument was strengthened Sunday by none other than Nasrallah himself. In an interview with a Lebanese news station, Nasrallah - in what Olmert called the Hizbullah leader's "speech of regret" - said that had he known back on July 12 what he knows today, he would never have ordered the kidnapping of the IDF soldiers. Not exactly the words of someone who felt he had just beaten the vaunted Israeli military. This "we won" campaign, from Olmert's perspective, makes perfect sense. For if Israel did not lose the war, but actually came out of it facing a better strategic position than it faced going in, there would be no compelling reason to establish a commission of inquiry (these commissions are established to probe failure, not success), and definitely no reason for Olmert to emulate Begin and Meir. AH, IF only it were so easy. If only the public could be fobbed off by "spin" alone. Olmert looked out his window Monday, before announcing the establishment of three lesser investigative committees, and seemed to conclude that the worst of the public backlash was behind him - that the protest movement had stalled, and that the country did not exactly take to Rabin Square in Tel Aviv demanding a full-baked Commission of Inquiry (as was done following the Sabra and Shatilla massacres in 1982). But the issue did not disappear. To the contrary, it still threatens Olmert's coalition and impacts on how he is viewed by the world. At the Wednesday press conference with Annan, both of the questions he was asked by Israeli journalists dealt not with UN Security Council Resolution 1701, the cease-fire or implementing the arms embargo on Hizbullah, but rather with the commission of inquiry issue. And this line of questioning has implications abroad. The world - both the Islamic world and the West - is watching to see whether Olmert has emerged from the war limping, or supported by his people. If limping, why deal seriously with him if his limp may cause him to fall in just a matter of time? But if he is being supported, propped up, then what he says has more meaning because of a realization that he has the political ability to back up his words and initiatives. It is unlikely that when Olmert announced the three committees on Monday - one to probe the military, one for the political echelon, and the State Comptroller to look at the preparedness of the home front - that he expected his defense minister to oppose, or the comptroller to respond with an indignant, "you can't tell me what to do" reaction. But so it was. Peretz has to head off those in his own party looking for his scalp, and as a result he is leaning toward favoring a full-blown State Commission of Inquiry, even though it seems unlikely he would emerge from it unscathed. And State Comptroller Micha Lindenstraus, who has proven himself a somewhat tempestuous comptroller, publicly became annoyed at being asked by the prime minister to probe the home front. Olmert hoped to bury the issue, but these two reactions - taken together - managed to keep it very much alive. What's worse for Olmert is that his opposition to the move is widely perceived as politically motivated, to save his own skin; rather than principled, to spare the country at this critical juncture the governmental paralysis that would result from a long, intrusive inquiry commission. And here, it seems, Olmert has become a prisoner of his own reputation as the consummate politician. He might indeed only be looking out for the good of the state, but because Olmert is Olmert - meaning the politician's politician - his steps are viewed by many first and foremost as political. His moves on the inquiry issue have come across to many as playing politics - vacillating, hedging and maneuvering in order to survive. Whether he will publicly admit it or not, Olmert is now facing a crisis of confidence - the confidence of the public in his and his government's ability to lead the country in times of war. And with the Iranian nuclear situation reaching a critical point, this is not just some theoretical question, but a practical one that could have existential consequences. Olmert badly needs to regain the country's confidence in his - and his government's - ability to lead, to make the right decisions. Establishing a State Commission of Inquiry might be one way to do this; setting up a national unity government might be another. So far, Olmert has rejected both options, favoring the far easier path - claiming victory and moving on. But so far it is also not clear whether the country will be willing to travel along.