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OLMERT PRE-EMPTS WINOGRAD

Ehud Olmert: 'I Plan On Serving As Prime Minister For Long Time, Despite My Unpopularity & Criticism of Me'

'My Critics Are Right - I Am An Unpopular Prime Minister But It's Because I Take Unpopular But Necessaay Decisions'

Analysis: By Admitting To Unpopularity Prime Minister Olmert Is Trying To Take Sting Out of Criticism By Winograd Enquiry Next Month

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert acted swiftly after  the Winograd Enquiry into the war with Hizballah announced that it would include 'personal conclusions' in its partial agreement to be made public in the second half of April. This will apply to the Prime Minister, the Defense Minister and the IDF Chief of Staff. At a meeting of his ruling Kadima party, Olmert admittted that he was an unpopular prime minister but rejected his critics attacks.  A  IsraCast analysis of the Olmert speech indicates that the Prime Minister may have tried to pre-empt public reaction to possible criticism in the upcoming Winograd findings.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has pre-empted the findings of the Winograd Enquiry into the   conduct of the war against Hizballah last summer. That appears to be the message that Olmert sounded loud and clear to critics in his own Kadima party and the country at large.

After plumetting to nearly rock bottom with a popularity rating of only 3% with Israeli voters, Olmert launched his own counter- attack. The timing of his speech came just after the Winograd panel annouced that it's interim report,  to be published in another month would include ' personal conclusions ' about the Prime Minister,  Defense Minister Amir Peretz and former IDF Chief Dan Halutz who was forced to retire by public pressure. At a meeting of the ruling Kadima party, Olmert took aim at his critics: ' I think they are right, I am an unpopular prime minister. Maybe this will surprise a few but I do know how a prime minister can become popular'.  Olmert contended that among other things, he could have become more popular  by ' accepting the advice of commentators and retired generals and launching a ground attack in the first week of the war while endangering  the lives of IDF soldiers or by refraining from the ground assault until the last week and thereby risking the war's achievements '.

Olmert declared that he was elected for a four year term adding: ' I have absolutely no intention to abusing the trust placed  in me by the voters, I work for them. Let there  be no misunderstanding  - I intend working for them for a long time to come'.

By accepting and then repeating five times ' I'm not a popular prime minister ' Olmert has tried to take the sting out of criticism present and future by contending : ' So what, it's because I take unpopular by necessary decisions'. And in particular he challenged : ' How many of my critics know of the complexity of taking decisions in wartime'.

So, Olmert, a lawyer by training,  says in effect the fact that 97% of voters think he fumbled the war with Hizballah cuts no ice with him. He retorts that rather than participate in a ' beauty contest ' for political popularity he's been hard at work making the tough decisions in the national interest. The Prime Minister cannot expect that Winograd will heap laurels upon  him ; but the question is whether it will find that Olmert followed the prudent  and resonable course that should be expected from a prime minister on going to war. There is no question that the Hizballah attack, one of several since the IDF withdrew fron south Lebanon in May 2001, was tantamount to a casus belli. The guerillas rocketed Israeli territory, killed eight soldiers and abducted two others who have yet to be returned. It can be assumed that Olmert told the enquiry that he was advised by Defense Minister Peretz and IDF commander Dan Halutz that the military was prepared to take on Hizballah. Moreover, the partial report will deal with the time up to July 17th , five days after the outbreak of hostilities. The abduction , undoubtedly an IDF foul-up was the responsibility of  Chief of Staff Halutz and possibly the Defense Minister.  They also bear prime responsibility for the IDF not being ready for the type of war that ensued with Hizballah. For Olmert, another key question will be how Winograd rules on the PM's degree of his responsibility; was it enough for him to take the advice of his two top military advisors and then recommend to the cabinet to go to war? This remains to be seen. At the time, politicians, military commentators and the country at large clamoured for a no - holds barred reaction. There were almost no warnings that the IDF was unprepared. ( Previously, a confidential report by three members of the Knesset Foreign Affairs & Defense Committee compiled a secret report that Hizballah would bombard northern Israel and that a major ground operation would be needed to knock out the short range Katyushas that wreaked havic throughout the 33 day war). Winograd could find that Olmert did act reasonably. The decision not to mobilize the reserves and the failure to launch a major ground operation until it was too late all transpired after July 12th. Therefore, if the enquiry's partial report deals solely with this period, the criticism of Olmert could be politically tolerable for the Prime Minister. This is not the case for novice Amir Peretz, who by his own admission, was out of his league as defense minister in the war.  On the other hand, Olmert will bear responsibility for appointing Peretz although he has contended  this was a Labor party decision.

Olmert's defiant speech to his Kadima party and the country signals that he may be on the ropes but he is not has no intention of resigning even if he is hauled over the coals next month by the Winograd enquiry. The fact is the Winograd panel, appointed by the Prime Minister has no legal power to fire him or Defense Minister Amir Peretz, the Labor Party leader. But Peretz is in a more precarious position  because his full time job is the IDF and its preparedness. It is hard to imagine that the commission will accept that appointing an inexperienced defense minister is reasonable in a country with Israel's security threats.

All but one of the Kadima cabinet ministers who would vy for party leadership if Olmert will be forced to resign threw their weight behind the PM. Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni spoke in more general terms about party unity without mentioning support for Olmert. While the opinion polls have decimated Olmert, they have raised Livni to the most popular leader in the ruling party.  Livni, who had her differences with Olmert on extending the war, signaled that political changes may be on the way in Israel. Labor, the main coalition partner, is widely expected to select a new party leader even if Amir Peretz survives the Winograd partial report next month. There is no way of knowing if this could lead to a breakup of the Kadima - lead coalition  and another early election.  If so, Livni signaled that she will be ready to run for the leadership of Kadima.

David Essing

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