Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council

Olmert's Winter of Discontent

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By Amotz Asa-El


Two years after his improbable rise to Israel’s premiership, Ehud Olmert’s most striking accomplishment in this capacity, his endurance against the odds, is today at risk as never before.
Though he clearly remains as confident and politically aggressive as he has been throughout his 34-year public career, chances are high that February 2008 will bring about its undoing. The release of an official investigation-committee’s report about the management of 2006’s Second Lebanon War, scheduled for January 30, and Olmert’s loss of a key coalition ally two weeks ahead of that deadline, add up to a pincer movement even many of his colleagues doubt he can survive.

The war in 2006, which exposed northern Israel to six weeks of rocket attacks, cost the lives of 135 civilians and soldiers and still ended inconclusively, initially seemed ready to deal Olmert’s political career a death blow. However, he responded with a kind of resilience and resourcefulness that even his friends did not predict, and which left even his enemies admiring his political skills. For one thing, he adopted a defensive line that admitted some failures of leadership, but at the same time diverted the fire to then-military Chief-of-Staff Lt.Gen. Dan Halutz. Then he unexpectedly coaxed into his coalition Avigdor Lieberman, a secular nationalist who in some ways is even more right-wing than opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu.

In accomplishing this a mere 10 weeks after the war had ended, Olmert drove a wedge in the heart of the opposition, not only abruptly undoing the momentum it had gathered, but also making it all but impossible to imagine a parliamentary majority able to ambush him and vote him out of power.

For 14 months Lieberman delivered the goods. He allowed Olmert to pass two budgets, survive protracted strikes in the high school and higher-education systems, and, most importantly, he offered, grudgingly, a right-wing stamp of approval as Olmert took Israel to November’s Annapolis Conference. Lieberman also helped Olmert, if even only passively, to slowly restore some of the popularity he had lost in the wake of the war, which, at the time, left him with single-digit approval ratings.

Having managed to stabilise his political position, Olmert began to impress some opinion makers as a reasonably efficient prime minister, one whose previous blunders no longer justified his premature removal. Voices who supported him included Yoel Marcus, doyen of the Haaretz newspaper’s political commentators, and Hebrew University’s Professor Shlomo Avineri, Israel’s foremost political scientist. Olmert’s approval ratings slowly climbed above the 20 percent mark, benefiting also from Attorney-General Menachem Mazuz’s decision not to indict him over alleged irregularities in tendering out a major bank privitisation as finance minister in 2005.

But that period is now over.

Pressured by the largely Russian-speaking electorate that won him one-tenth of the last general election’s votes, Lieberman unceremoniously parted company, in a well-attended press conference, from his unlikely bedfellow.

The formal reason for Lieberman’s bolting is ideological. Having previously promised to leave the government should it enter into talks with the Palestinian Authority over the prickly issues of Jerusalem, refugees and final borders, Lieberman ostensibly had no choice, as Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and PA negotiator Ahmed Qurei did just that on Jan. 14, in Jerusalem.
Then again, Lieberman’s original entry into the coalition did not sit well with his hawkish electorate, considering that Olmert ran on a platform of an ambitious retreat from the West Bank. Yet, even while the two were parting ways, Olmert and his former strategic affairs minister went out of their way to compliment one another. Olmert spoke of “a pleasant period of mutual work,” with Lieberman waxing poetic about Olmert being “far smarter and abler a manager than most people realise.”

Therefore, most pundits sought for a more self-interested and cynical explanation for Lieberman’s move, one that is less about indignation and more about calculation.

They argue that, apparently, Lieberman’s assessment is that Judge Eliyahu Winograd’s report will be scathing, and will catalyse a countdown to Olmert’s removal. Should such a scenario materialise, Lieberman can’t afford to be caught alongside the man prone to be in the eye of that storm. He certainly does not want to be perceived as his lifesaver, an image he already assumed, at a high price in the polls, when he joined Olmert back in late 2006. Moreover, during his months in Olmert’s coalition, Lieberman failed to make headway on his civic agenda, which includes a demand for the partial institution of civil marriages, an urgent issue for many in his immigrant electoral base, as well as political reforms.

Whether or not Lieberman’s apparent assessment, that Olmert is living on borrowed political time, is valid remains to be seen. What is obvious is that the focus of his game is on seizing the leadership of the Right. Initially this cause was served by joining the coalition, and now he clearly judges it will be served by leaving it.

With Lieberman’s move a fait accompli, the question is where it leaves the rest of the chess pieces, and how, if at all, it may affect the upcoming events. For their part, these will be dominated by three other players: the ruling party, Kadima; its senior coalition partner, Labor; and Olmert’s religious partner, Shas.

Within the ruling party, Transport Minister Lt.Gen. (res.) Shaul Mofaz, the former army chief-of-staff and later Ariel Sharon’s defence minister, said several days ahead of Lieberman’s resignation that the Second Lebanon War was a failure, and that responsibility for it lay not with the military, but with “the war’s management,” meaning Olmert. Mofaz is widely expected to publicly challenge Olmert to resign unless the Winograd Report somehow leaves the embattled Prime Minister completely unscathed, a very unlikely scenario.

Last April, when the committee issued its interim report, which attacked Olmert harshly but stopped short of expressly demanding his removal, all eyes were set on Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni. She consistently emerges in polls as Kadima’s most popular politician, but hesitated back then in her response, and when she finally addressed the press, she compromised. She called on Olmert to resign but then failed to offer her own resignation when he declined to offer his. If she now teams up with Mofaz, Olmert may find that even his political shrewdness can no longer withstand the kind of colossus such a configuration would comprise. Then again, for such a combination to be successful, one of the two would have to endorse the other’s candidacy for party leadership, and throw his or her faction’s support behind the other as a replacement for Olmert. No such deal currently seems imminent.

Labor’s choices are no simpler. Party leader and Defence Minister Ehud Barak publicly promised to demand Olmert’s resignation should the Winograd Report prove damning, and the mainstream electorate which is the party’s target constituency is expected to tolerate no backtracking on Barak’s promise. Then again, polls consistently indicate that in a general election, should one be held soon, Barak would be beaten handily by opposition leader Netanyahu. It follows then that Labor’s best course would be to seek Olmert’s removal while avoiding changes in the next general election’s date, which for now is late 2010. Add to this the fact that Barak and Livni regularly compare notes in quiet one-on-ones, and are believed to have developed a close working relationship, and you get a widespread assessment that Barak will seek Olmert’s replacement by Livni, and then create a political alliance with her.

Even so, as if to remind the predators around him that his eulogies may again prove premature, Olmert pulled yet another vintage political rabbit out of nowhere in late January, one that potentially trapped his other critical ally, Shas. The timing was predictable, but the way he did it was totally unforeseen.

The ultra-Orthodox party has built its political fortune in part by providing thousands of government jobs for its supporters and constituents, from neighbourhood rabbis to cemetery managers. But in 2003, it lost a major spoils-repository when Ariel Sharon, as part of a deal with a centrist party that no longer exists, abolished the Religious Affairs Ministry. That agency, which used to hand out allocations for religious academies and help finance the establishment of religious institutions, became a symbol of religious politics in Israel. Now Olmert, who back in ‘03 brokered the deal that resulted in this ministry’s dismantlement, told Shas he is prepared to restore it. For Shas this was the equivalent of Taiwan returning to China.

Understandably, the restoration of the Religious Affairs Ministry has elicited much disgruntlement: both because it seems politically cynical as policy and because Kadima’s electorate largely favours increased separation of religion and state. At the same time, even the staunchest purist could not help but hand it to Olmert for having emerged with the right bone, for the right hound, at the most perfectly chosen moment.

Olmert has defied virtually all predictions by remaining prime minister as long as he has, and even his enemies cannot deny his skill as a consummate manager of coalition politics. Yet it is clear that he is likely to need all that skill, and probably yet more rabbits pulled from his hat, if he is to keep his job much longer.

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