With eyes glittering with tears and a soft voice, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert appeared last night before the few reporters who attended the event that marks his leaving office. Behind him, on the piano at the prime minister's residence, stood a large vase of white flowers, hiding the large painting of cypress trees painted by his wife, Aliza, hanging on the wall. In the near future the couple will look for a new home for that painting, and the aides who listened in silence to the announcement that their boss was stepping down will begin new careers.
The short tenure of Olmert has left many of them wishing for more - a sense that they missed out on something big.
"We were nearly there," one of the aides said. "On Passover last year we emerged from the Winograd Committee, and with the Lebanon War behind us, and with politics being stable it was possible to move ahead on the peace process. And then came the Talansky affair, and everything crashed on top of us. Too bad, Olmert could have done great things," his aide lamented.
Olmert came into office in a storm, with the collapse of Ariel Sharon, and is departing in a storm of police investigations. During the 31 months as prime minister, he failed to meet the main mission he had set for himself: a new border with the Palestinians on the West Bank that would ensure the future of Israel as a Jewish State. The task is now being left to his successors.
Olmert excelled as a political manager and a leader of a coalition, but did not manage to gain public affection. His victory in the March 2006 elections was not decisive, and prevented him from transforming Kadima into the dominant ruling party. Only his exceptional skills in running political systems enabled him to enjoy relative stability in his post, until the collapse of recent weeks.
He was better than his predecessors in giving attention and support to politicians, and appreciated the fact that their wish to keep their jobs and avoid early elections was more powerful than the public criticism directed against him. Olmert established a particularly good relationship with world leaders, and this year he managed to host the leaders of the United States (twice), France, Britain and Germany.
Olmert's tenure was diverted from its path on June 25, 2006, the day Gilad Shalit was abducted to the Gaza Strip, and crashed completely two and a half weeks later, with the abduction of Ehud Goldwasser and Gilad Regev by Hezbollah. The abductions transformed him from being Sharon's successor, who intended to continue the process of disengagement, into the leader of a nation at war.
Olmert failed this test three times: in the appointment of Amir Peretz as Defense Minister, in his rushed decision to embark on the Second Lebanon War, and in his decision to continue the war that had lost its point after the first strike of fire.
The helplessness of the government during the war, the serious shortcomings in the conduct of the army, wore down the meager popularity of Olmert. The public was tired of him, and did not want his leadership, even when he tried to lead the country in a different direction.
The irony is that the Tzipi Livni and Shaul Mofaz, who are contending to be his successors, offered him ways out during the war. Livni suggested avoiding an escalation and bringing the offensive to an end a few days after it had started; Mofaz suggested an operation that may have saved Israel the frontal assault and spared the many casualties in the final week of the war.
The disappointment of the public as a result of the war only became deeper as the corruption cases turned into an avalanche.
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