Rattling the Cage: Living with Olmert, dying with Bush

Israelis and Americans are in the same boat, stuck with leaders they don't want.

larry derfner 88 (photo credit: )
larry derfner 88
(photo credit: )
The nation's leader is deeply unpopular and getting more so. The public is unhappy with the way the country is going and wants to get rid of the leader and elect a new one. The problem, though, is that because of the country's electoral system, the leader can't be budged from office, at least not for a while. The public can scream its head off, but the leader just carries on. Not for the first time are Israelis and Americans in the same boat, or rather in two separate boats that are very much the same. Israelis are stuck with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert because only the Knesset can call new elections, and this Knesset won't do it because half the members would lose their seats. The American public is stuck with President George W. Bush because there's no way to impeach him. Americans think their country is being led down the wrong track and Israelis think the same of their country, and Americans and Israelis are each becoming more and more frustrated because they each feel powerless against a leader they don't want. There are some very important similarities between the American and Israeli situations. In both countries, the discontent stems from a war gone bad - for America in Iraq, for Israel in Lebanon. But as a citizen of both countries, I can say I'm much less worried about the one I live in, Israel, than the one I was born in. FOR ALL the complaining Israelis do against Olmert, is there anything of major importance he's doing wrong as far as they're concerned, except, of course, remaining in the Prime Minister's Office? Do they, for instance, want him to reinvade Lebanon, or reconquer Gaza, or bomb Iran (today)? Are Israelis under attack, is there a war going on, are buses blowing up in the cities - is Olmert failing to provide Israelis security? No. Or is the economy on the rocks - is there runaway inflation, is there runaway unemployment, are businesses closing left and right, are people becoming homeless beggars (any faster than they were before Olmert took office)? No. In fact, as security in Israel and the Israeli economy go, they're both in pretty damn good shape. The dissatisfaction with Olmert stems instead from the corruption accusations against him, from the war in Lebanon he failed to conclude with Hizbullah's disappearance, and from the destruction of his peace plan by Arab guerrillas in Lebanon and Gaza. Alongside these items, the dissatisfaction stems from the fact that Israelis never would have elected Olmert prime minister if he hadn't first inherited the office from Ariel Sharon, and now that "Sharon's way" - unilateral withdrawal plus military deterrence - has been discredited, Olmert has shrunk back to normal size, which, as nearly every Israeli agrees, is way too small for the seat he's in. Fine. All this disappointment didn't come out of nowhere. I, too, can think of people I'd rather have than Olmert for prime minister, and it's obviously not a healthy situation when a leader with virtually no public support may be able to serve another three years in office before the next election. But the failure of the Lebanon War was basically a failure to realize the limits of military force, and nearly all Israelis - the overwhelming majority of the public, the military brass and the politicians - were partners in that failure. Olmert as prime minister bears ultimate responsibility, but he was, after all, doing the nation's bidding. AT ANY rate, the war is over. Turning to the present and future, what is Binyamin Netanyahu, Ami Ayalon or any other Great Israeli Hope proposing that's any different from what Olmert and his despised government are doing right now? Nothing. There's no new peace plan out there, there's no new idea for how to deal with Hamas or Hizbullah or Iran or anybody. The Olmert government is doing about what most everybody wants it to do, and anything it isn't doing, such as talking to Syria, doesn't seem like such a missed golden opportunity anyway. All Netanyahu, Ayalon et al. can really offer the public is platitudes - "clean government," "leadership," "sound judgment," "strength." Hot air. The one unquestionable rap against Olmert premiership is that he's under investigation for corruption. But he's not the first, is he? Sharon was there before him, and Ehud Barak was there before Sharon, and Netanyahu was there before Barak. The odor of corruption is nothing new in Israel, at any level. Israelis may be disgusted with their leader, and they may think the country's going to the dogs, but the most important things to Israelis - security and the economy - are solid. The problem in this country is mainly one of attitude. NOT SO in America. Bush's four-year-long war has proven to be a horrendous failure by any objective standard. It offers no hope of ever achieving its goal - a pro-American Iraq that can stand on its own feet. The only attitude problem in America is that it took the public there so long to turn against the war and call for its conclusion. It was bad enough watching Bush fight this idiotic war when Americans supported it, but to watch him escalate the war now that it's both idiotic and hugely unpopular? This is sickening. I'm ashamed of America. What a weak democracy it's turning out to be. First Bush sends another 21,000 troops to Iraq, and now on top of that he's sending another 7,000 to Iraq and Afghanistan - and he's going to get away with that, too. (The war in Afghanistan, unlike the one in Iraq, was right for the US to start because that's where 9/11 came from. Like the war in Iraq, though, the one in Afghanistan has turned into a failure.) The Democratic-led opposition has a majority in Congress, but whatever antiwar initiative Bush can't intimidate the opposition out of trying, he promises to veto. And he's going to get away with that, too. Olmert is worried that the Winograd Commission inquiry into the Lebanon War could embarrass him so badly that Kadima, by public demand, might throw him over for someone else. Bush, however, isn't worried about anything. Nothing embarrasses him. No disgrace creates the sort of public demand that might force Congress to end the war. The Libby trial reveals that the president's Svengali, Dick Cheney, stopped at nothing to conceal the administration's lies about the war, yet more American troops keep being sent over to fight it. The scandal at Walter Reed Hospital reveals that maimed US veterans of the war have been treated with near-indifference, but Bush keeps ordering more healthy soldiers into harm's way for his lost cause. Nothing shames him, nothing even cramps his style. It's as if one pathetic excuse for a responsible decision-maker is leading 300 million Americans around by the nose. And that is about what's happening. Soon there will be 150,000-plus US troops in Iraq, and there's no telling how many more will be there by the time Bush leaves office in January 2009. The assumption is that his successor, at least, will immediately begin winding down the war - but who knows? At this point, Rudolph Giuliani seems to have the best chance of winning next year's election, and he's backed the war from the beginning, so it's by no means a foregone conclusion that he - or his Republican rival, John McCain, another big war hawk - would wind it down. And even if a Democrat wins, if the antiwar Barack Obama or the chameleon-like Hillary Clinton gets elected, is it a certainty that either one of them would have the stomach to order an American retreat, to accept the inevitable Iraqi meltdown on his or her "watch," to face accusations of weakness, cowardice, appeasement and treason? There's really no way of forecasting how big the Iraqi war will get by the time Bush is out of the White House, and there's no way of forecasting when it will end afterward. No one can estimate how many more American war casualties there will be. While Olmert may be even more unpopular with his public than Bush is with his, Israelis aren't getting killed and crippled because of bad leadership. Americans are. With that in mind, Israelis should be grateful for the leader they've got, however unsuitable and unwanted he may be.