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In the Wake of the Winograd Interim Findings: Why Is Olmert Hanging On?


University of Pretoria Centre for International Political Studies (CIPS)
No. 32/2007
In the Wake of the Winograd Interim Findings: Why Is Olmert Hanging On?
By Dr Eran Lerman

More than 100,000 Israelis—and these figures are the lower estimates—gathered in Rabin Square on May 3 to call for the resignation of those held responsible for the failures of planning and execution that attended the Second Lebanon War. The protest, in a sense, was true to the intent of the Winograd Commission, which explicitly chose to assign responsibility to the former chief of staff of the Israel Defense Force, Lt.-Gen. Dan Halutz; to the Defense Minister, Amir Peretz; and to the Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert; but at the same time to avoid specific personnel recommendations in its interim report. Prime ministers and their key colleagues, it said, are judged not by one aspect alone, and beyond the war issues, which the commission was charged to look into, there are much broader considerations that the real sovereigns—the people at large—may want to weigh as they make their judgment. Since the war gave rise to questions of professionalism, conduct, and discretion (as distinct from criminal culpability, where one instance might suffice to discredit, which was not the case here), it was better left to the public to have the final word.

This is what the broad-based, non-partisan demonstration sought to do. The range of opinions and backgrounds was impressive. Bereaved parents led the proceedings, and among the crowd there were “orange” participants—who still resent not only Olmert’s remarks during the war (the victory, he was too quick to predict, would lay the ground for further withdrawals), but his role in Ariel Sharon’s disengagement plan and his own actions in Amona—side by side with Peace Now stalwarts and a full range in between. Indeed, when one of the peace activists, the writer Meir Shalev, showed his own version of faulty judgment by taking a partisan stand in his speech, he ended up alienating many, in the square and in the country at large, and feeding the spin masters who wanted to belittle the event and emphasize its divisive nature. But his comments were not typical: Most of the speakers did their best to leave behind their traditional differences and focus on the demand for a more competent and accountable political leadership.

Why, then, did Olmert decide to ignore their call, and the semi-public advice of his own foreign minister, Tzippi Livni, last week and take a tough (and sophisticated) political stand securing his survival in power—at least for the time being? How can a prime minister even pretend to function with what amounts to zero approval levels? In the Knesset, the coalition led by Olmert’s party, Kadima, handily defeated the votes of no confidence hurled at it from the left (Meretz) and the right (Likud), but given the depth of the crisis, what is the point of holding on? For many in Israel, this seems to be little more than desperate politics at its worst. But from Olmert’s point of view—as his conduct, his terse and spare statements, and his campaign of deep background talks with opinion leaders and intellectuals all imply—the crisis looks rather different: a passing storm, of sorts, that ignores the real issues and needs to be weathered so that these can be properly addressed. For him:

1. The consequences of the war, or even the more general questions of national security on the Iranian, Syrian, Lebanese and Palestinian fronts, are not—or need not be—the only criteria for performance of his own government. He would argue, rather, that the country is, in fact, doing very well—so well that the treasury coffers are full, large-scale plans for reducing poverty are at work, the unprecedented trade surplus is rising, and the dollar has sunk to an exchange rate below four shekels for the first time in seven years. Why would the public at large to seek a political upheaval?

2. Even when the war itself is being assessed, the harsh tone of the Winograd findings may be unjustified: The outcome may not be as gloomy as it is made out to be. Olmert is on shaky ground here: Some of the achievements his government has claimed, such as the deployment of the Lebanese Army and a much enlarged UNIFIL presence in Southern Lebanon, seem to be less than meaningful, as the UN itself admits that Resolution 1701 is being systematically ignored by Hezbollah and its Iranian paymasters and Syrian allies. The reliance on the international community and on the application of law and order, in Lebanon and in the Gaza crossings, has proved illusory. However, the more general and less tangible impacts of the war—the anger at the ruin visited upon Lebanon, the alienation of many Lebanese, Arab, and international players, the loss of Hassan Nasrallah’s vaunted self-confidence—should not be ignored; and Olmert may be right when he warns that the present storm in Israel only serves to confirm in Nasrallah’s mind that he did win after all, which in turn could have a troubling impact on the Lebanese presidential elections later this year, and could dangerously add to the erosion of Israel’s deterrent posture.

3. Moreover, much of what the commission had to say—indeed, its most profound and well thought-out parts—had less to do with personal blame and focused upon the need for deep and effective structural changes. The policy-making process must be fixed, and soon; relations in the uneasy six-way power game among the Prime Minister’s office, the Ministries of Defense and Foreign Affairs, the IDF, the intelligence community, and the emerging role of the National Security staff need to be reexamined in the harsh light of the commission’s critique; and IDF readiness might be tested at any time against the events unfolding in Gaza or another crisis in the North. A change of leadership, with all that it entails—let alone an election campaign—is not the right way to implement such urgent and crucial changes in the way Israel fights wars.

4. Finally, there are the specific aspects of the personnel alternatives, as they may be seen through Olmert’s experienced—and acerbic—gaze: Would the country (he surely muses) be better served if led by a young professional politician, much less experienced than himself, whose hesitant demeanor would send the wrong signal at the wrong time? Or by a man in the ninth decade of his life, who earned a reputation as a well-meant and highly respected, yet mercurial and occasionally misguided, operator on the world stage? Or again, after a rough election campaign, by Benjamin Netanyahu and the resurgent Likud, with all that this would imply? There are possible answers to all these questions, but the prime minister and the spin meisters around him have a manner of asking them so that the doubts spill over into the public domain.

None of this, at the end of the day, will in itself secure Olmert’s hold on power if the Labor Party decides to abandon ship within the next few weeks, or if the next installment of the commission’s report goes a step further in assigning blame—particularly for the highly controversial decision to launch a half-hearted ground campaign in the last two days of the war, which cost the lives of thirty-four soldiers, but did not fully crush the Hezbollah presence in the South. He is aware of his precarious position, and so is the Bush administration. But a good number of Israelis are still reluctant to join the protest movement: some out of sheer inertia, and lack of trust in the political process; others because they do share some of Olmert’s viewpoints, as listed above. Even if they have very little trust in his ability right now, few Israelis are sure, at this time of crisis, that others would do a better job. In six months’ time, we may look back upon this turbulent moment of transition with a wry smile; but from our present vantage-point, there is not much to celebrate in post-Winograd Israeli politics.

Dr Eran Lerman

Dr Eran Lerman is Director of the Israel/Middle East Office of the American Jewish Committee.

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Replies: 1 Comment

The Gaza saga shows the danger to Israel as long as it remains hostage to US ignorance and whims regarding Middle East realities. Ariel Sharon will be eternally right about Gaza just as the US will be eternally wrong about Irak. The irony is that Sharon was perfect for Israel as Sadam Hussein was for Irak.
The US will definitely fail in Irak and Israel should now decide its fate with Gaza. Are its enemies worth its own exitence? It should be ready now and not when the US decides it.

Posted by nathan vincent @ 06/16/2007 08:11 AM CST

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