Olmert's obligations

There is a gap between Olmert's confidence and the steps he's promised to take.

elections06.article.298 (photo credit: )
(photo credit: )
Humility is not presumptive Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's strong suit; nor is winning an election usually conducive to developing such a trait. The circumstances, however, require humility, and not just because the winner arrives as a stand-in for the comatose Ariel Sharon. The voters have indeed given Olmert a mandate, but there is a gap between the tentative confidence shown in his path and the momentous steps our new leader has promised to take. Given the election results, it will take a mighty effort and all of Olmert's skills not to tear this country, and its economy, apart.
Elections 2006
Olmert bravely jettisoned much of the ambiguity he had inherited from Sharon as to his future path. Rather than continuing to claim, as Sharon had done, that he had "no plans" for further withdrawals, Olmert promised to establish our "permanent borders" by "converging" tens of thousands of Judea and Samaria settlers behind a completed security fence. The voters seemed to have been somewhat rattled by Olmert's candor, since at 28 seats, according to the near-final results, he seems to have lost a quarter or perhaps more of the seats that Sharon was expected to receive. But the pro-withdrawal Jewish parties (Kadima, Labor and Meretz) received 20 more seats that the anti-withdrawal parties (Likud, NU-NRP and, it might be argued, Israel Beiteinu), so it is hard to claim that the public voted to reject the centerpiece of Olmert's campaign. Implementing "convergence" will be difficult and contentious no matter what. Even if the public had voted more decisively for Kadima, and therefore for much-larger unilateral withdrawal than that implemented by Sharon, Olmert would still not have been able to ignore the opposition to his policy. Under the current circumstances, it is even more important that he form a coalition that does not just include Kadima and parties to its Left. Olmert has said that he would consult widely with the settlers directly before deciding on a withdrawal line. But Olmert is also the leader responsible for the evacuation of Amona, which was hardly a model consultative process. Now that the election is behind us, it is very important that Olmert resolve the conflict between conciliatory statements and potential heavy-handed action by reiterating his promise to consult, and by implementing that promise in a sincere and serious way. The public much preferred the balance struck between sensitivity, persuasion and force employed during the evacuation of the Gaza settlements to that displayed at Amona. Nor is sensitivity enough. Kadima has pledged not only that it would preserve as wide an internal consensus as possible, but that international support for its plan would be sought as well. The latter is not a luxury but a necessity; though called "unilateral," further withdrawals would be irresponsible without first reaching an effective agreement with the international community providing tangible diplomatic benefits for Israel. The internal and external aspects are directly related: the more the government is able to deliver significant international benefits, the more understanding and support it will receive here at home. On the economic front, parties such as Labor, Shas and the Pensioners' Party that campaigned against Binyamin Netanyahu's economic reforms received 40 seats. Here Olmert must break the mold and not assume that the health of the economy must be sacrificed to fulfill his coalition needs. Creative methods can be found to address legitimate social interests, and even correct mistakes, without sending the economy backwards toward recession. Economic growth and social justice need not be in conflict. We need both, and that means more structural reforms, particularly of the tax system, not less. Finally, Olmert cannot ignore the fact that the relatively low turnout, coupled with a vote spread thinly and for so many new parties - including his own - constitutes a major vote of "no confidence" in our political system. The two historic "major parties," Labor and the Likud, together received only 31 seats - less than the Likud alone in the previous election. Such alienation is dangerous for our democracy. An electoral reform that would determine at least part of the Knesset by constituencies should be an urgent objective. If Kadima really believes in stability, it must pursue electoral reforms that will stabilize our system over the long term. Our electoral "big bang" is a perfect opportunity to implement a long overdue reassembling of the pieces.