Ehud Olmert’s Fading Fortunes
Today, Singapore, 24/08/2006
The last month and a half have probably been the worst in the political life of Israel’s Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. After taking over from ailing PM Arik Sharon in January and confirmed as Prime Minister by parliamentary elections in March, he had little time to prepare for the storm that hit on July 12th with the outbreak of hostilities between Israel and Hezbollah in Southern Lebanon.
Olmert was a Likud party back-bencher already considering leaving politics when his loyalty to PM Sharon paid-off and the latter appointed him Vice Prime Minister during his second term in office in 2003. Never having seriously been considered a candidate for premiership, he had no independent power base when he joined the Kadima party created by Sharon for political expediency after Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza strip in 2005. As Kadima’s fall-back candidate for Prime Minister in the 2006 elections, after Sharon’s stroke, Olmert barely delivered the goods when the party garnered only 29 seats in the 120 seat Knesset, far short of the predicted more than 40. Now that his fortunes are down in the wake of the war in Lebanon, his lack of an independent political base hampers recovery and may accelerate his political decline.
Ehud Olmert has always been considered too quick on the draw and often enough expressed himself rather intensely, traits that have given reason for concern ever since he became acting Prime Minister. In addition, some real-estate deals he was involved in and whose propriety is still under review, cast another shadow on his not altogether solid reputation. The appointment of political novices, long-term friends and mediocre party hacks to some key positions in the cabinet (an Israeli practice not limited to Olmert), did not enhance his standing and following in the footsteps of a loved and revered leader like Arik Sharon, he had a lot to prove. Nevertheless, definitely in the eyes of the public, Olmert appeared good enough to continue Israel’s long standing tradition of “muddling through”, the local version of governing. His commitment to go ahead with Sharon’s unilateral convergence plan and extend it to additional territories in the West Bank assured him widespread public support.
As it happens so often, crisis situations can make or break a country’s leadership and Olmert’s performance during the Lebanon crisis has come under severe criticism, less in the political arena than in public and the media. Despite a total lack of military expertise, an attribute he shares with his senior coalition partner and Minister of Defence Amir Peretz, Olmert did not deliberate for long and apparently had no compunctions when heeding the Israel Defence Force’s (IDF) proposal for an all-out attack to counter Hezbollah’s limited challenge. It becomes clearer by the day that the governmental decision-making process in the short run-up to and throughout this conflagration was hasty and flawed, led to ill-considered and costly military options causing unnecessary casualties and resulted in a cease-fire under unfavorable terms.
While Olmert is not the only one to blame for these failures, as Prime Minister he has to take responsibility, something he already said he will do. In practice, this may well be where his taking responsibility ends if developments do not force him to resign. Lucky for him, the parliamentary opposition appears not ready for a realistic challenge at this time lacking any serious alternative. What may however bring about his downfall will either be the surging public protest movement instigated by furious reserve soldiers returning from Lebanon, or an official commission of inquiry that is likely to be forced on Olmert shortly. For the time being a reshuffling of the cabinet and/or the governing coalition and possibly the military leadership may still suffice to placate an irate public.
Whereas the mainstay of Olmert’s political agenda, the convergence plan involving a further withdrawal from the West Bank is all but dead, the challenges posed by the need to repair the damages of the war in the north of Israel, patch up the torn social fabric, fix the IDF and maybe, just maybe, initiate a diplomatic process worthy of its name vis-à-vis Syria and the Palestinians, could give him plenty of opportunity to redeem himself in the near future. Should the swelling protest movement or the ensuing inquiry fail to bring him down in the crucial weeks ahead, he just may be given another a chance to turn the remains of his tenure into something more than just “muddling through” to regain the public’s trust.