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OLMERT'S SURVIVAL

Olmert Officials: 'One-Hundred Thousand Demonstrators Calling For Prime Minister's Resignation Will Not Decide For Entire Country'

Olmert Absorbs Winograd Onslaught With Both His Party & Coalition Still In Tact

Labor Faces Dilemma Of Alienating Potential Voters By Remaining In Olmert Cabinet In Order To Block Bibi Netanyahu's Rise To Power In Early Election

Livni and Olmert (Photo: Amit Shabi)

The scathing findings of the Winograd interim report were harsher than expected and have rocked Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and his coalition government. But Olmert has absorbed the immediate impact, rolling with the punches and determined to survive. But as previously discussed by IsraCast, the Prime Minister could be at the mercy of Labor, his main coalition partner which faces a major dilemma over remaining in an Olmert-led cabinet.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has weathered the political storm following the Winograd condemnation of his conduct in the Second Lebanon War, but his political future still hangs in the balance. In his ruling Kadima party, Olmert blocked a half- hearted move by Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni who declared publicly: ' The right thing for Olmert is to resign '. But only two of the party's twenty nine members supported her move to topple the Prime Minister. Kadima has rallied behind Olmert waiting to see what the morrow brings. So by week's end the hard-pressed leader could count for the time being on Kadima's support. In Kadima, it's a matter of hanging together or possibly hanging separately at this stage.

Tzipi Livni (Photo: Amit Shabi) (Photo: Amit Shabi)

After the initial shock waves of the Winograd castigation, Olmert's coalition partners Labor, Shas and Lieberman's Yisrael Beitenu, are also standing pat. None of them is ready for an early election. Moreover, all the polls indicate that the Likud's Bibi Netanyahu would score a decisive victory and form the next government; an anathema for Labor. But a question mark hangs over Labor which holds its leadership primary on May 28th. The incumbent, Defense Minister Amir Peretz is expected to be dumped and one of the two front-runners, Ami Ayalon has declared that he will take the party out of an Olmert-led government. Ehud Barak is still keeping mum on the issue. But if Ayalon wins and Labor bolts the coalition it would be w curtains for Olmert. He would have to run against Livni for Kadima leadership and likely lose. The other option would be for Labor to give Kadima an ultimatum - dump Olmert in order to form a new coalition without going to an early election. Therefore, the PM has to be rooting for Barak to win the Labor party primary and replace Peretz as his defense minister. But even if Ayalon wins, Labor could force its new leader to join an Olmert coalition in order to block Netanyahu from coming to power. Clearly, Labor faces a double bind - it could alienate potential voters by remaining in an Olmert-led cabinet in order to block Netanyau's rise to power.

This is a key issue in the post Winograd period. Although the polls indicate that well over 60% of Israelis wish Olmert to quit, there is great consternation over who will replace him. This was reflected in the huge Tel Aviv protest demonstration that called on Olmert to ' go home, we've had enough of you! ' Citizens from across the political spectrum , left, right and center, showed up shouting for Olmert's resignation. In fact, no politicians were invited to address the throng in order to keep out party politicking. But when popular author Meir Shelve, a keynote speaker, charged that Olmert's failed conduct of the war also resulted from ' the occupation ', he was roundly jeered by right- wingers. His punch-line was cheered by everyone: ' Mr. Prime Minister, you say you work for us, well you're fired!'

For a majority of Israeli voters there is a glaring leadership vacuum today. The Winograd partial report provided proof positive, if any where needed, that an Israeli prime minister must have a solid understanding of strategic affairs, preferably with high- level government experience. If he/she doesn't, it is crucial that his defense minister does. If the defense minister is also out of his league and the IDF Chief of Staff totally dominates decision - making the results are in jeopardy. Winograd's repeated use of the word failure has lead to Olmert, Peretz and Halutz being branded as ' flops'. ( Chief of Staff Halutz is still considered to be one of the best ever Israel Air Force Commanders. His appointment to Chief of Staff could be an example of the Peter principle- promoting a talented person to a top position where he lacks the where-with-all to succeed).

So, who can fill the job of providing the best security for the state? In the wake of the war, this will likely be the key question for Israelis when it comes to credibility in the government after the Winograd dust settles or if an early election rolls around.

Moving beyond Olmert and Peretz, there is Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni of Kadima. Nearly all the media pundits hauled her over the coals for telling Olmert to resign, while she remains in his cabinet. In Israel, politicians often blame unjustly nearly everything that goes wrong in public life. But if something is blamed often enough, sometimes the blame is finally justified. Livni was roasted for not resigning herself after telling the prime minister he was incompetent; she was called a political coward and not having the right stuff to become prime minister. In their view, she did not have the courage of her convictions and had violated Israel's political hygiene. Israeli commentators compete with each other in stretching the heights of hyperbole. One female pundit in the Yediot Ahronot newspaper went as far as to write unabashedly: ' Tzipi Livni proved she has no b---s!' On the day, before Livni met Olmert to tell him what she thought of him and then said so at a dramatic news conference, political reporters provided running commentaries of how Livni was about to resign after telling Olmert to quit office. (Defense Minister Amir Peretz was also reported as about to resign at any moment, which also didn't happen) . When Livni did not live up to their predictions, they turned in fury on the Foreign Minister. ' How could Ms. Clean tell the Prime Minister he should resign and continue to serve in his cabinet?' As if Israeli politics complies with the Anglo- Saxon tradition of ' what is or is not done'. But looking at the current situation, how ethical is it for a prime minister to have been found responsible for a fumbled war that cost the lives of 163 Israeli soldiers and civilians and yet remain in office? If this is an abnormal situation, why was it so abnormal for Livni to tell the Olmert to resign while still retaining her own cabinet post? Moreover, Olmert kept Livni ' out of the loop ' in decision making after the initial decision to go to war against Hezbollah. The irate pundits apparently forgot the first lesson in Politics 100 - it's all about the art of the possible. The media in its coverage of Livni's 'disgraceful climbdown ' has been guilty of irresponsibility and unprofessionalism, that's what Winograd said about the conduct of the war. Olmert apparently decided not to fire Livni but warned her that she could not remain in his cabinet if she again criticizes him in public.

The political scene is in a state of flux and the politicians are battening down the hatches. In such times, it may be best to do nothing until the blurred picture becomes clear. Labor's Ami Ayalon is a case in point. The day before Winograd, Ayalon said he might consider serving in the Olmert cabinet if he won the party election. The day after Winograd, the former admiral jumped ship and declared the opposite. Ayalon was then charged with zig- zagging and demonstrating a lack of political savvy.

As for the Likud's Bibi Netanyahu, he got it right in rejecting Olmert's case, that those responsible for the war's failing are the best ones to stay in office and set things right - that it's for the good of the country. This convoluted logic was also voiced by former IDF Chief of Staff before he finally resigned. Question for Kadima politicians: ' Say you underwent a triple-bypass heart operation that was botched by the surgeon. Would you agree to his request to let him have another go because he knew best where he had made all his mistakes? '

David Essing

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