Ehud Olmert must lead on

Initial mistakes can be reversed. Israel can yet benefit from the premier's prudence and wisdom.

olmert good pic 298 88 (photo credit: AP)
olmert good pic 298 88
(photo credit: AP)
In March 1961, President John F. Kennedy approved a plan to send CIA-trained Cuban exiles to overthrow Fidel Castro, who was considered a growing menace to the United States. The newly-elected president relied on advisers who held faulty assumptions about Castro's strength in Cuba. The plan backfired badly; the expected uprising never materialized and the exiles were either captured or killed. The Bay of Pigs was a strategic miscalculation that publicly embarrassed Kennedy and temporarily hobbled his fledgling administration. Had Kennedy wanted to shield himself from immediate criticism or portray perceived resoluteness, he could have escalated the conflict by adding direct US military involvement. Doing so would have rallied the American public to the flag over the short term, but would also have initiated a costly war 90 miles from its shores. Kennedy recognized the folly of pursuing this course given the need to contain the Soviet threat worldwide. He acknowledged his error, accepted "sole responsibility," and endured the public ridicule and second-guessing. Kennedy's foresight and self-restraint kept the peace and preserved America's path toward eventual triumph in the Cold War. LIKE KENNEDY, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert made a strategic miscalculation early in his administration. Like Kennedy, he was confronted with a growing menace near his border. Like Kennedy, he relied on advisers who made faulty assumptions about the strength of the enemy that led him to believe Hizbullah could be swiftly disarmed and removed. The reality on the ground soon shattered those assumptions. Olmert could have stubbornly clung to his original promises and pressed on with the war after 34 days of bitter fighting. Had he succumbed to such temptations Israel would currently be engaged in a long, difficult war to remove every sign of a Hizbullah presence in southern Lebanon. Olmert saw the folly of staying this course and heeded lessons from Israel's 18-year Lebanon occupation. ONCE OLMERT recognized his strategic error, he moved swiftly to prevent further damage to Israel's long-term security interests. He turned to diplomacy and accepted a UN resolution that called for an immediate cease-fire. Just as Kennedy resisted inflaming the Cold War, Olmert prevented the situation in Lebanon from spiraling downward into the type of chaotic, disorderly morass that gives rise to extremism. He came to understand that the resolution of the conflict would have to be political, rather than military, in nature. The job of permanently weakening Hizbullah's influence is better left to domestic political forces in Lebanon. As soon as the cease-fire took effect Israeli forces began an orderly withdrawal from southern Lebanon. The peace has held despite widespread skepticism. Although the international peacekeeping force is still not yet fully deployed, the Lebanese public is confronting Hizbullah about the catastrophe it wrought. Hizbullah chief Hassan Nasrallah was compelled to express regret for having provoked Israel by kidnapping two Israeli soldiers. The usually tough-talking Nasrallah conceded that had he foreseen the consequences that would result, he would "definitely not have done it." UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan has increased international pressure on Hizbullah, calling for the unconditional release of Israel's kidnapped soldiers. AS THESE developments continue to unfold, so has a fierce debate within Israel about the soundness of Olmert's leadership. On the pages of leading Israeli newspapers some columnists are passionately calling for Olmert to be replaced, accusing the prime minister of having "cut and run" and made their nation appear weak. The Israeli public is justifiably disappointed by the unfulfilled promises made initially by the government. And Israel's demand for accountability is a gleaming reflection of that nation's vibrant democracy. But bringing down the government would hand Hizbullah a tangible victory to crow about. It would also throw Israel off the prudent path Olmert has worked so courageously to establish. On a recent visit to the Israel-Lebanon border sponsored by the American Jewish Committee, I had the opportunity to meet with Israeli mayors of northern cities, who expressed the hardship felt by their constituents. Against the backdrop of loud artillery fire, one mayor vividly described the life in his town as "a living hell," with residents scrambling to underground bomb shelters for hours at a time. While this mayor and many other Israelis were willing to continue the fighting, they are living in peace and restoring their livelihoods thanks to the bold decision of their prime minister. Olmert has acted in Israel's long-term interest at the expense of his own short-term political standing. Both president Kennedy and Prime Minister Olmert overcame initial mistakes by correcting course and redeploying their resources prudently to ensure the continued strength and prosperity of their respective nations. The writer is the deputy research director at the Center for American Progress in Washington, D.C. He recently returned from a week-long trip to Israel.