Israel's Political Storm
Prime Minister Olmert unites the left and right in protest
TEL AVIV-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has never been mistaken for a trusted, revered leader of the Israeli people, and never less than now, with the public clamoring for his ouster following a damning report on his handling of last summer's war in Lebanon. Yet while he is not a people's leader, none can deny that he is an inspired political survivor. He is proving this, too, more clearly than ever by holding his ground-so far-against the waves of contempt crashing down on him.
By any reasoning, Olmert, elected early last year as the protege of the incapacitated Ariel Sharon, should have been gone from office by now. Last week's publication of an ombudsman committee's interim report on the start of the war, which blamed him for "a serious failure in exercising judgment, responsibility, and prudence," seemed the final nail in his political coffin. Polls found two thirds of the public wanting him out immediately. Aside from his perceived flop as a wartime premier, he is beset by corruption investigations involving financial deals and other matters. And coming later this summer, the ombudsman committee's final report, covering the remainder of Israel's 34-day war against Hezbollah guerrillas, which ended well short of the "victory" Olmert promised, is expected to be even harsher.
Yet by the end of last week, the worst of his long career in national politics, Olmert, 61, was not only still standing but also seemed to have grabbed the high ground from his rivals. The main one, Foreign Minister Tsipi Livni, failed completely in her crisis-hour test of nerve by telling Olmert he should resign and then, when he disdainfully refused, deciding not to challenge him for his seat but instead to hold on meekly to her own.
Olmert's public argument for staying on is that he and his coalition government are dutybound to "fix the shortcomings" in Israel's civilian and military leadership cited by the committee led by retired judge Eliyahu Winograd. This argument has met with derision. "Mr. Prime Minister, you and your government are the shortcoming," Knesset Member Effi Eitam told Olmert from the podium of the Knesset, as the prime minister stared back poker-faced.
In the streets. In Tel Aviv's Rabin Square, a crowd of at least 100,000, including a rare Israeli mix of hawks and doves, chanted, "Olmert, resign!" The emotional message of the rally was delivered by parents of soldiers killed in the war and reservists who carried the brunt of the fighting. "If there's another war, how will a government with no moral authority call on reservists to go fight again?" demanded Giora Cohen, whose son, Nir, was one of 119 Israeli soldiers killed.
Yet while some 100,000 protesters in a country of 7 million people amount to an impressive crowd, there have been larger, angrier ones that failed to bring down Israeli prime ministers in the past. Meanwhile, an incipient rebellion in the Knesset, which has the power to keep Olmert in office, replace him, or call for new popular elections, seems to be receding. All but three of the 29 Knesset members in Olmert's centrist Kadima (Forward) party are with him for now.
While right-wing opposition leader Binyamin Netanyahu-who, as the favorite in the polls, wants new elections-told the Knesset that Israelis want "a leader with vision," Vice Premier Shimon Peres, Olmert's key ally, had a telling, if cynical, reply. "True, a leader has to have vision," said Israel's elder statesman, "but a leader also has to have a majority in the Knesset."
"Critical but stable" is how one Israeli newspaper described Olmert's political condition at week's end. He faces an immediate future of no-confidence votes and more street protests. He also has those corruption probes hanging over him, while the final Winograd report looms ahead. However, the Israeli status quo works in his favor: Palestinian terrorism is in check, Hezbollah is holding its fire on the northern border, and the economy is growing. Neither war nor peace seems about to break out anytime soon.
But in Israel, the status quo never lasts long. As soon as it is broken-by war, terrorism, or a solid opportunity for peace-the nation's need for a prime minister who is a trusted leader, not a survivor, could become overwhelming.
This story appears in the May 14, 2007 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.