Olmert's paradox

The more he speaks of the moment's significance, the more he strengthens the case against him.

Olmert 224.88 (photo credit: AP)
Olmert 224.88
(photo credit: AP)
The annual speech by our prime minister at the Herzliya Conference has become a sort of "State of the Union" address dedicated to unveiling major policy initiatives. This year, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert dedicated his to maintaining his grip on power. As students of politics, we have to hand it to Olmert. Few others would so overtly attempt to transform weakness into virtue, "accept" criticism while preemptively rejecting it, and even attempt to dismiss detractors as political manipulators of grieved families. For example, Olmert said, "Let me say at the outset: There is not, nor will there be, any political, party or personal consideration which will deflect me from the effort of reaching a political arrangement with the Palestinian Authority." With this, Olmert is trying to portray himself as a crusader for principle above politics. But the politics cuts the other way: It is clear that Olmert sees the Annapolis process as his only ticket to survive in the face of the conclusions of the committee that he hand-picked regarding his handling of the Second Lebanon War. That panel's conclusions, on the six years preceding and the first five days of the war, have already led to the departure of the IDF chief of General Staff and the defense minister, but not to Olmert's resignation, even though Olmert himself takes primary responsibility for management failures during the war. Olmert's statement, however, is problematic not just as a justification for staying on, but for what he says he will do. He repeatedly declares that nothing will stop him from reaching an agreement with the Palestinians during what he calls "the narrow crack that I must widen to advance peace." But this is far from reassuring. It reveals a massive conflict of interest: Olmert's political survival depends on reaching agreement at almost any cost, while the national interest requires determining and upholding red lines the crossing of which would be worse than not reaching agreement. The significance of the Winograd Report is not just about the need to take responsibility for past actions, but what these actions say about Olmert's judgment, and therefore about future decisions. It is not just Olmert's refusal to accept the consequences of failure that is debilitating to our political system, but his insistence that this same judgment, after having been proven to be flawed, must be brought to bear in decisions that will have a profound impact on the nation's future. Olmert's argument is not only that this moment is uniquely suited to reaching a final-status agreement, but that he is uniquely suited to do. While the argument for engagement and negotiation with Mahmoud Abbas may be strong, the claim that racing to achieve a final-status agreement within a year should be the goal, and that Olmert, given his near total loss of the public's trust, should negotiate it, is emphatically weaker. Olmert's unsuitability for such a task, and his political desperation, were illustrated afresh at Herzliya by his open swipe at grieved families who, among others, are demanding his resignation. "I am experienced and keen-sighted enough," said Olmert, "to see all the ties and collaborations of those swooping in with insatiable political lust on the blood of our sons, of those who assist from within and those who support from outside - and all for the purpose of taking away from our people its chance for a new horizon." It is Orwellian for Olmert to accuse grieved families of being political tools. If anyone is political, it is Olmert, who is showing every indication that he will say, do, and compromise a great deal in the cause of advancing his political survival. Further, it is plain wrong for Olmert to effectively dismiss his opponents as either political pawns or blinded by grief. A prime minister does not sink to the bottom of the polls, as Olmert has, because of the opposition of a handful of grieved families, but because most of the nation has lost confidence in his judgment. It is this confidence that Olmert must, but cannot, win back. The reason Olmert cannot win back the public was demonstrated at Herzliya. His speech was a virtuoso performance of political survival skills, yet it likely reenforced the public's concerns regarding his qualifications to make some of the most fateful decisions this nation has ever known. Olmert's paradox is that the more he makes the case for the strategic significance of this moment, the more he strengthens the case against his own premiership.