Anything but elections

When a peace agreement is ready, Olmert, Livni must let the public decide whether it's acceptable.

cabinet 224 88 (photo credit: AP [file])
cabinet 224 88
(photo credit: AP [file])
The shadow of Winograd is looming ever larger over the political landscape. Knives are being sharpened in anticipation. A new shrillness can be discerned in the daily thrust and counter-thrust of politicians. After all, the stakes are high: the downfall of the government? New elections? The end of the Annapolis process? The imminent final report from the Winograd Committee is generating strong emotions among many people, not least among the families who suffered the loss of dear ones, and the reserve soldiers who saw close at hand the mistakes that were made during the Second Lebanese War. That war was a traumatic event in the history of Israel, and there was every justification for it to be investigated by a committee of the highest order. For politicians, however, the story is far more complex. For many of them, Winograd is far more than a report on the mistakes made leading up to and during the war. And it is far more than an indictment of those responsible for those mistakes. Some of the politicians are hurriedly attempting to exonerate themselves of any blame, others are using it as a stick to beat their opponents. Above all, however, Winograd has become the ultimate weapon to bring down the Olmert government, and, in the eyes of certain politicians, to save Israel from the dangers of the Annapolis process. In the coming weeks we will be hearing a cacophony of voices from those who fear the new impetus that the peace process has acquired. They will be demanding the immediate resignation of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert because of his mishandling of the Lebanese imbroglio. They will be demanding new elections. They know that if the final Winograd Report is damning in its indictment of the prime minister's handling of the war, then, indeed, there will be a strong case for him to resign. Olmert, for his part, will point to his reliance on the recommendations of the army, something that every prime minister has done, and to the support he received for his decisions from his cabinet, in particular from those who hailed from the military-security establishment, like Shaul Mofaz and Avi Dichter. "If the army had performed well, I would have been lauded for my decision to go to war," he will in all likelihood be saying. Olmert has already declared that he has no intention of resigning, and in Israel there does not exist anything similar to the impeachment process that is such a prominent feature of other democracies, for example the United States. Whether Winograd will bring down the government, therefore, will depend principally on the magnitude of the public demand for the prime minister to go, and, not less so, on the decision of one man, Ehud Barak, minister of defense and leader of the Labor Party, for if he resigns the government will automatically fall. Most of the Kadima ministers and members of Knesset can be expected to rally around their leader, and if he is nevertheless forced to resign, will demand that another Kadima minister be appointed in his stead, in order to avoid elections. A change of prime ministers, without elections, would let Barak off the hook, and he could then go back on his promise to resign from the government if the final Winograd Report is damning in its findings as regards the prime minister. This situation is already causing some Kadima politicians to show their true - or should I say false? - colors. One of them who sees himself in the running for the top post is Mofaz, the transportation minister. His implied accusations against Olmert's handling of the war, made last week at a conference organized by the Geneva Initiative group, could take first prize as an example of sheer hutzpah. If anyone contributed to the army's poor showing in the Second Lebanon War it was Mofaz, a former chief of General Staff and then defense minister before the war broke out. If anyone was responsible for the fact that the army had not been properly trained, that the emergency stores were depleted, that the reserve troops did not have the necessary equipment to fight, it was he. If anyone should have spoken out at the cabinet meeting at which the decision to go to war was taken, it was he. He, alone of all the ministers, should have known that the soldiers were poorly trained and that they lacked equipment, for he was responsible. The army under Mofaz was accused by a former deputy defense minister of acting against the decisions of the government. A former foreign minister claimed that the army under Mofaz refused to supply him with the necessary maps when he was sent by the government to negotiate with the Palestinians. Mofaz swore allegiance to the Likud just days before he moved over to Kadima; he is now the Likud's Trojan horse in the government, hoping for a place in the sun after the final Winograd Report's probable damning indictment of Olmert. With Mofaz as an example, can one be surprised that the public has lost confidence in its politicians, that the general feeling is that our political system is bankrupt and that, if the prime minister resigns, we have no good leaders to replace him? The polls show that Binyamin Netanyahu is a poor front-runner; too many people remember his past mistakes for him to be a truly popular leader. His comeback in the polls shows more about the public's opinion of the other options than about Bibi himself. Moreover, he excels in telling us what not to do, he is adept in explaining the dangers that face us, but is much less eloquent in defining what should be done to bring peace to our land. WE ARE in the throes of a process that might - just might - end in a two-state solution that is vital to the future of our Jewish, democratic state. If Olmert survives Winograd, he and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni will make every effort to reach an agreement with the Palestinians. They will do so quietly and without fanfare, with minimum media attention, preferring to meet the 2009 deadline successfully rather than to make headlines along the way. And when an agreement is cooked and ready, they will call for elections, and leave it to the public to decide whether it is acceptable. That is when elections should be taking place, when the electorate has something clear cut to decide upon. Not now. Elections now would bring the lowest turnout in the history of Israel. They would strengthen the small parties at the expense of the larger ones, and bring a government dependent on some of these small parties. We would witness a further weakening and destabilization of the political system. The Winograd hurdle is almost upon us. Will Olmert succeed in taking it in his stride and continue to lead the country? Will Barak live up to his promise, and resign from the government? There are turbulent times ahead, but one thing is reasonably certain: whether Olmert is forced to resign or not, we won't be seeing nation elections during 2008, and we won't be seeing the end of the Annapolis process. The writer is a former director-general of the Foreign Ministry.