Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council

Judgement Day

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By Amotz Asa-El

Olmert hangs on, while Livni pledged lukewarm support

Already beset by near-zero approval ratings, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was dealt a new blow in late April. A committee of inquiry he had appointed to probe last year’s war in Lebanon issued an Interim Report that blamed him personally for the war’s failings, and accused him of frivolity, irresponsibility and lack of planning. 

Headed by Eliyahu Winograd, an 80-year-old retired judge well above the political fray, the Committee also included two retired generals, a world-renowned political scientist and a leading law professor, both from the Hebrew University.

The five minced no words.

“Olmert,” said their Report, “failed as a leader.” He acted without a detailed military plan, held no orderly consultation process, and is personally responsible for the government’s failure to state “clearly and carefully defined” battle aims. Olmert also failed to adjust his own plan even when its underlying premises proved unrealistic. “The manner in which Israel embarked on this battle is unacceptable,” they wrote, “should not be repeated, and must be rectified as soon as possible.”

The main flaws in the government’s management of the war, says the Report, lie in its failure to rely on a preconceived plan, specify achievable aims, and deploy command structures that would control action in the field based on a thorough familiarity with the Lebanese arena. The decision to effectively wage war, taken hours after Hezbollah’s killing on July 12 of eight Israeli soldiers and kidnapping of two others, was made “without serious examination of the IDF’s readiness and without careful weighing of possible scenarios for the battle’s unfolding,” according to the Report.

Moreover, the decision to go to war lacked any reference to the ways in which it would end, nor schedules for its operations and stages. Some aims - most notably the release of the missing soldiers - were declared despite their impracticality. And though it was clear that the decision would spark “massive and protracted” bombardments of the home-front, there was no examination of what this should mean “in terms of the military operation’s course, duration or prospects.”

The Report condemned the government’s wartime conduct not only in its substance but also in its procedures.

“There was no thorough discussion, at any stage of the period covered here, concerning the operation’s contours, aims or means, whether in the military or political levels, or in the interface between them.” The failure to hold such consultations, concluded Winograd, resulted in decisions that lacked the foundations they required, and proved insufficient with respect to the needs that later arose.

In its concluding remarks the Report pinpointed Olmert - personally and unambiguously.

“We find the Prime Minister responsible, both personally and administratively, for the flawed decisions and the flaws in the ways they were taken,” wrote the Committee. “The Prime Minister made up his mind without having seen a detailed plan or having requested one, and could therefore neither analyse nor approve it.”

Understandably, Winograd’s statements, which he delivered live, in a clear and confident voice on national TV, sparked a storm.

The Interim Report only covered the war’s first days, and deliberately refrained from recommending anyone’s dismissal. The final report, due late August, will probe what is widely portrayed as the abandonment of the home-front to Hezbollah’s devices by a government that failed to prepare the North’s population, both materially and mentally, for what it went through during the six weeks of shelling that damaged thousands of homes and drove hundreds of thousands of people southward.

Worse yet for Olmert, the final report may also include the kind of “personal recommendations” that the Interim Report avoided. If Winograd actually calls on him to resign, Olmert will have no choice but to obey, even if such a verdict would be binding primarily in the moral rather than the legal sense of the term. Still, politicians, activists and the media seized on the Interim Report with relish upon its release, touching off an anti-Olmert momentum only to soon see him manage to restore his grip on the situation, at least momentarily.

An estimated 150,000 Israelis who crowded Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square four days after Winograd’s broadcast, chanting rhythmically “Olmert - resign!” represented a broad cross-section of the country. The prime minister’s most natural constituents - secular centrists and leftists - dominated the crowd.

The most prominent speaker to address the rally was author Meir Shalev, a longtime supporter of the kind of diplomatic flexibility that Olmert championed while running for the election he won last year. “You say you work for us?” shouted the bespectacled novelist into the microphone, paraphrasing a recent soundbyte of Olmert’s. “Well, you’re fired!”

Obviously, morally impressive though it may be, a cheering multitude cannot unseat a democratically elected leader. In Israel’s case, only 61 of the Knesset’s 120 legislators can fire a prime minister, and then too, for a vote-of-no-confidence to become law, a majority of the lawmakers must first agree either on the identity of his or her successor or new elections.

For his part, Olmert remained unperturbed and embarked on a rear-guard battle, determined to salvage his 33-year-long political career.

 

After he lost the backing of his own party whip and one backbencher, all eyes were focused on Olmert’s deputy, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni. Livni, the most popular politician in Olmert’s Kadima Party and the most senior female leader in Israel since Golda Meir, had long been at odds with her boss, though she made sure to keep their differences low-key and polite. During the war she sought an early diplomatic resolution, and was summarily sidelined, at one point barred by Olmert from travelling to the UN where she wanted to personally shape and expedite the adoption of the ceasefire resolution.

In her place, most other politicians would have grabbed the opportunity to unseat and succeed a rival, particularly with the premiership itself at stake. Livni, however, displayed a kind of battlefield caution that some found as lamentable as Olmert’s wartime haste. She took two days to make a public statement, and then stopped short of throwing the book at Olmert. Instead, she told Olmert she thought he had to resign, and at the same time decided to continue serving in his cabinet if he did not.

Though she may have actually planned it, figuring she did not really want to be prime minister, Livni’s response to the Winograd Report has reduced her chances to succeed Olmert should he resign. It also indicated the end of the mutiny Olmert was facing within his own party.

Nonetheless, Olmert’s removal by his colleagues remains a prospect if not an immediate one. Should Kadima’s lawmakers conclude that Olmert’s political survival threatens their own careers, possibly following the final Winograd Report’s release, they are expected to depose him.

In such a case, a likely choice as Olmert’s successor could be Shimon Peres, whose age and experience are likely to be seen by many, both within and beyond the Knesset, as what the country needs most in the aftermath of the current turbulence. The Peres camp, however, has indicated he may be more interested in the largely ceremonial job of embattled Israeli President Moshe Katsav, suspended at the moment pending indictment on rape and sexual assault charges.

In the Opposition, meanwhile, there is general awareness that to become negotiable currency, its leader Benjamin Netanyahu’s postwar popularity must be aided by circumstances that he and his colleagues are in no position to shape.

Not only can the Opposition not determine whether Olmert’s faction will remain loyal to its leader, it must also wait patiently as Olmert’s main coalition ally, Labor, decides its own future. If Labor abandons Olmert, as many there think it should, his coalition will probably unravel and an early election will become all but inevitable.

That prospect depends on the results of Labor’s primary election. The first round takes place on May 28, with a second round, if necessary, in mid-June. Frontrunner Ami Ayalon said in response to the Winograd Report that Olmert must resign, and that if it’s up to him Labor will bolt the coalition and seek an early election. On the other hand, Ayalon’s main rival, former Prime Minister Ehud Barak, has been ambiguous about Labor’s relationship with his longtime friend Olmert, saying he should resign, but that he, Barak, would also serve as his defence minister.

While all political watches are tuned to Labor’s election and to Winograd’s August verdict, most pundits believe Olmert is living on borrowed political time, and that one way or another his coalition will fall apart and an early election will be held.

 

Netanyahu: reversal of fortunes

In such an election, polls indicate the likely winner will be Benjamin Netanyahu.

The outspoken Opposition Leader is eager to get a second chance as prime minister, a position he lost abruptly eight years ago after a bumpy ride. He arrived as a sprightly 46-year-old superstar, and emerged three years later a greying, exhausted and disillusioned victim of Israel’s merciless politics, as well as his own lack of executive experience.

Netanyahu’s current popularity - he has been leading handsomely in all polls since the war - represents a remarkable reversal of fortunes.

Back in early 2006, Netanyahu led the Likud to the worst defeat in its 34-year history, as the party that once commanded 40 percent of the electorate dwindled to one tenth of the current Knesset. But that was the morning after Ariel Sharon’s retreat from Gaza - which at the time seemed like a success - and soon after Netanyahu’s abrupt resignation in protest, which seemed like a fateful miscalculation.

Now, with Olmert’s premiership on the brink of collapse and Netanyahu arguably vindicated, the stage seems set for a spectacular comeback. Then again, to sustain and expand his emerging recovery, Netanyahu understands he will need patience, as the current Knesset cannot be expected to crown him prime minister should Olmert resign or be deposed by his own party. Rather, he must await an early election, focus attention on the war, and stress everyone else’s involvement in it and his own distance from its failings.

This is apparently also why Netanyahu conspicuously avoids discussing the corruption scandals in which Olmert’s administration is embroiled. Netanyahu’s strategy is to focus on the war, but also to refrain from changing the subject to issues on which Likud’s record is not much better than Kadima’s. Should Ayalon win Labor’s primaries, he is likely to bring a focus to the corruption allegations, territory where Netanyahu has less to offer than political cleanskins like Ayalon and Tzipi Livni.

Perhaps most intriguingly, Ayalon and Netanyahu worked closely on a daily basis during Netanyahu’s premiership, when the former commander of the Israeli Navy served as head of Israel’s equivalent of the FBI. Chances of future cooperation between the two are not negligible.

At any rate, Netanyahu’s recovery benefits not only from other people’s mistakes, but also from his own record this decade, which features two highlights: Opposition to Ariel Sharon’s disengagement from Gaza, and massive economic reforms as finance minister from 2003 to 2005.

With Gaza spewing out rocket fire almost daily at communities within Israel’s internationally recognised, pre-’67 borders, Netanyahu’s insistence that disengagement would fail seems much more insightful than it did back in 2005. Moreover, Hezbollah’s subsequent shelling of northern Israel last summer has made Netanyahu’s generally pessimistic attitude toward life in the Middle East sound far more down-to-earth than its original portrayal by his adversaries.

Meanwhile, Netanyahu’s record as Sharon’s finance minister - where he brought to an end the worst recession in Israeli history and implemented sharp social-allowance cuts, tax cuts, raised the pension age, de-monopolised the seaports, capped public-sector hiring and sold such state-owned symbols as the El Al airliner, the national Oil Refineries and telecommunications giant Bezeq - is today earning him additional kudos.

With GDP growing annually at five percent, unemployment down from 11 to 7.9 percent, inflation hardly one percent, interest rates lower than America’s and the shekel at an eight-year high against the dollar, the tough reforms Netanyahu led against fierce opposition have bred results that are difficult to ignore. Moreover, they also gave Netanyahu reason to claim he is not just an effective speaker, which even his rivals never denied, but also an effective executive, which even his fans once doubted.

Netanyahu’s economic leadership will now allow him to present himself as the delivering visionary that most Israelis, according to polls, fail to see in Ehud Olmert.  

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