In Olmert's shoes

How the prime minister's popularity plummeted in several easy steps.

olmert bush farewell visit 248.88 (photo credit: AP [file])
olmert bush farewell visit 248.88
(photo credit: AP [file])
'A meteoric downfall." That's how Israel Television broadcaster David Witzthum summed up the career of George W. Bush during a review of the legacy of the former US president. The phrase took my fancy. Ahead of the Knesset elections, it's clear that Bush is not alone. Perhaps he and outgoing Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert could continue to meet and chat - maybe even with Palestinian Authority head Mahmoud Abbas. What they have to say will no longer be relevant to the general public - if it ever was - and at least they could console each other. One of the obvious differences between Bush and Olmert, however, is that the former seems to have heaved a sigh of relief and set off into the sunset (or for some fishing and quality family time), whereas Olmert shows no sign of actually taking in the fact that he is headed for one of his controversially purchased houses. The road home, for both, was paved with good intentions. But war is hell, and it intervened. After 9/11, Bush declared war on terrorism, starting in Afghanistan and then bringing down the regime of Saddam Hussein. When weapons of mass destruction were not discovered and the troops found themselves bogged down in a country where, as one wag put it, a day without a suicide bombing is noteworthy, Bush took a beating. Body bags and empty coffers bode ill for any politician, no matter how noble their original aims. Ironically, as Witzthum and his colleague Oren Nahari pointed out in their Globus show, by sending the cavalry charging into Iraq, as it were, Bush significantly lowered the chances of his successor launching a military initiative against Iran, where a nuclear program is openly taking pride of place. Olmert, too - despite being a born-again peacenik - will be remembered mainly for the failings of the Second Lebanon War. If the rockets from Gaza continue, Olmert will also be blamed for the failure of Operation Cast Lead. Labor leader and Defense Minister Ehud Barak will happily take the credit if the military operation is proven to have led to an improved security situation in the South and/or the chance to gain the release of abducted IDF soldier Gilad Schalit. Olmert is being blamed at home for the release of hundreds of Palestinian terrorists (some in return for the bodies of the two soldiers whose kidnappings sparked Lebanon II) and many more as a "gesture of goodwill" to Abbas. In fact, it is currently fashionable to blame Olmert for so much that it's surprising he hasn't been declared responsible for the unusually dry winter. In the age of ratings, the outgoing prime minister is not only being sent home, he is being booed off the stage. I wouldn't like to be in his shoes (although don't talk of shoes next to his pal Bush. Or of popularity polls). While Bush found much of his energy - and resources - being spent on the war in Iraq, Olmert has had too much of his attention diverted to the criminal investigations on various corruption charges which ultimately forced him to step down. And remember this is the man who as a young Knesset member in the 1970s championed the anti-corruption campaign. He was also known as a talented fundraiser. Now, while Bush's corruptions of the English language gave birth to the term "a Bushism," the inquiry into the allegations that Olmert received illegal funds from a US businessman turned the name "Talansky" into a Hebrew verb meaning to stuff an envelope with "black" money. Olmert also gave us "convergence" - a word aimed at making withdrawal from the West Bank acceptable. It was met in certain quarters of Israel with about as much enthusiasm as a missile hit engenders. Even before Lebanon II saw rockets landing in vast areas of the North, the dire predictions by the Right that disengagement from Gaza would result in missiles landing in ever more strategic sites in the South was coming true. That rockets would have followed Israelis over the Green Line after a West Bank pullout now seems so self-evident that even Olmert dropped the "C" word. The next-nearest thing Olmert made to a Bushism was, perhaps, his poorly worded response to the renewed missile attacks from Gaza last week, when he was quoted as promising "harsh and disproportionate" retaliation, as if the would-be peacemaker were not facing cries abroad of "war criminal." Of course, at home, the Israeli public feels he didn't do enough to stop the missiles before they reached the stage of 80 a day. In my mainly working-class Jerusalem neighborhood, Olmert - a once-popular Likudnik, former mayor and, most importantly in the Katamonim, a Betar Jerusalem Soccer Club fan - would not be elected to even a local committee. Should IDF Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi, however, decide to run for prime minister, he would be a shoo-in. Ashkenazi has come to represent the silent, strong type. Olmert is perceived as shooting off his mouth and firing from the hip. If nothing else, the details of what Olmert reportedly offered the Palestinians mean he would probably by welcomed more warmly at the Bushes' home than by most of my neighbors. Olmert - like any other citizen - is innocent until proven otherwise, of course. But the phrase "Ke'omek hahakira, omek hanesiga" - roughly translatable as "The deeper the investigation, the deeper the evacuation" - made an understandable comeback during his premiership. The term, used to describe Ariel Sharon's disengagement plan while he was subject to police inquiries, was a play on Yitzhak Rabin's oft-pronounced stand regarding the depth of peace and the extent of the possible withdrawal from the Golan Heights. And Olmert's contacts with Syria, via Turkey of all negotiators, fell flat with even many left-of-center Israelis. According to various reports, Olmert told the Bush regime that Israel would yield nearly all the West Bank and Jerusalem's Arab neighborhoods. (Although many voters remember the shooting from the Palestinian Bethlehem area onto Jerusalem's Gilo neighborhood, and few can forget the sight of the Gaza Jewish communities being dismantled many, many missiles ago.) Under the "peace plan," there would also be a link between Gaza and the West Bank - although first it might make sense to ensure there's peace between Hamas and Fatah, which control the two separate areas. The proposals apparently grew from negotiations so festively launched by Bush at Annapolis in November 2007. And look where it got him. It is tempting to eulogize Olmert's career, but he might yet have the last laugh. Given an election in which two of the leading candidates are former prime ministers, Binyamin Netanyahu and Ehud Barak, and Avigdor Lieberman's Israel Beiteinu could become the country's third-biggest party despite 10 years of police investigations into its leader, Olmert might yet step back into the political limelight, even while Bush relaxes at home.