Ehud Olmert's aides were at great pains this week to get the message across: The prime minister did not change his schedule by one iota. He held meetings, oversaw the deal with Hezbollah, visited the army, dealt with the budget, met (twice) with U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice for talks about the agenda of the Annapolis conference, spent hours in the Knesset, wrapped up the problem of the allocations to Holocaust survivors - and then flew off urgently to Russia for a meeting with President Vladimir Putin. Precisely during a week like this, any reasonable person who found himself burdened by yet more police investigations, which involve weighty issues of a different kind, would have wanted only to hide under the blanket, but Olmert showed up for work as though nothing had happened.
The results are also visible: This week he was again photographed at a press conference looking exhausted, his head seemingly about to slump, his eyes exuding weariness. Maybe the abnormal workload he creates for himself helps him forget his private troubles. "A great deal of work is done in Olmert's bureau," a person close to the prime minister said this week. "There is a lot of doing, but no joy in doing. The joy has been taken from us."
Who took away that joy, the confidant was asked. "The circumstances," he replied, cautiously.
Still, the confidant was asked, there are four police investigations under way - that has to affect a person's job performance. "Olmert is a character," the man said. "He is not daydreaming emotionally. He does not bemoan his bitter fate to those around him. He listens to the reports and keeps going. From our point of view, from his point of view, it was another week in the office."
Many people - politicians, journalists, foreign diplomats - asked themselves this week what it will take to bring Olmert down. The Jerusalem issue at the Annapolis conference? The criminal investigations? The report of the Winograd Committee on the Second Lebanon War?
The answers are as varied and as numerous as the questions. In fact, there are more answers than questions and more scenarios than actual facts. In the meantime, no one knows what the outcome of the investigations will be. The fate of the Bank Leumi case is the closest to being decided upon by the police: a matter of weeks. In any event, the final decision rests with the state prosecutor, either the present one or his successor - it depends. Media and political confidants of the accountant general, Yaron Zelekha, who get their information mainly from him, are convinced beyond any doubt - and tell anyone willing to listen - that the Bank Leumi case will produce a serious indictment against Olmert.
On Monday morning the media dealt with the Olmert investigations. By the evening, no one was interested any longer. The deal with Hezbollah topped the agenda for two days, until the visit to Russia cropped up - and, in conjunction, U.S. President George W. Bush's comment about the need to stop Iran from becoming a nuclear power if World War III is to be prevented. Bush's remark was of interest not only to the Israeli defense establishment, but also to local politicians. If Bush has determined that 2008, his last year in office, will be the year of decision, that will have a direct impact on the state of the coalition. Israel will not go to the polls on the eve of an American strike on Iran, which could develop into a regional conflict, here in our neighborhood. In that case, something totally different might happen: In extreme circumstances, the Likud might join the government for a limited time, or at least support the government externally.
A hint in this vein was voiced by Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu, who told Olmert shortly before the prime minister departed for Moscow: "Tell President Putin that when it comes to the Iranian nuclear project, there is no opposition or coalition in Israel."
The automatic, knee-jerk reaction to the harsh comments Labor MK Ephraim Sneh makes here about the defense minister and chairman of his party, will be: "Well, of course. Sneh is embittered and frustrated because of the way Ehud Barak removed him from the position of deputy defense minister." No one knows what goes on in the heart of someone who feels hurt, or what induces him to say what he does. But it is easy to believe Sneh. He projects integrity, and in any case similar remarks can be heard from other Labor MKs, though not for the record.
Sneh thus breaks, openly and for the first time, the thunderous silence in Labor regarding Barak's political behavior on the eve of the Annapolis conference. There is no doubt that his is the fiercest attack on Labor's chairman "from inside the armored personnel carrier" (as Barak put it before the 1999 elections) since he was elected to the post. Not even the former party chair, Amir Peretz, dared to go so far, so bluntly.
"Barak is captive to an old paradigm," Sneh says. "He thinks that in order to be elected Israel's next prime minister, he, as chairman of Labor, has to be right-wing. That is no longer the case. He cannot be more right-wing than Olmert. The leader of the Labor Party cannot be an outside observer of the peace process. The defense minister has all the tools to ensure that this move will succeed, but he is not making use of them. Historically, the leader of Labor is the leader of the peace camp. If one behaves like Barak, one loses the moral validity to lead the peace camp."
According to Sneh, the Annapolis conference will succeed or fail over the small issues: Israel's behavior at West Bank checkpoints, the assistance granted to the soldiers of Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen), aid allocated to Palestinian businesses and factories, and to the mayors - all issues that are within the exclusive purview of the defense minister. And that minister is acting with a heavy hand, says Sneh: "For Abu Mazen to be able to concede to us on the big issues, he has to bring his people sweets. There is only one person who is responsible for the sweets: the minister of defense. And instead of things being eased, land is being expropriated next to Abu Dis," adjacent to East Jerusalem.
The Labor Party "cannot stand aside when it comes to the Palestinian question," Sneh adds. "The problem is not that Barak is blocking things, the problem is that he is not helping. The Labor Party has not led any move since the Taba talks [winter 2001]. This is a party that is not taking the lead. We have lost our self-confidence. Since 2001, we have been dragged in the wake of others. We were dragged in [Ariel] Sharon's wake to the disengagement. Now, even though it is Olmert who is leading the move, we have to give him our full support, on the one hand, and on the other, be a crucial element in pushing the move ahead. We have a marvelous tool for that: the Defense Ministry."
Sneh does not understand Barak's political tactics. Let's say the conference fails, he says. Who stands to gain then? "[Iranian President] Ahmadinejad, [Hamas leader Khaled] Meshal, Netanyahu. They will rejoice. I will not allow the Labor Party to defect from the peace camp."
The MK dismisses the allegation that he is driven by personal bitterness. "I am not looking for quarrels, I am looking for results," he says. "True, I do not forget anything, but in matters of security I am on the level. If I have reason to be angry at Barak over the dismissal, I have even more reason to be angry with Olmert for preventing my appointment as deputy defense minister for eight months. But now I say wholeheartedly: The Labor Party must give Olmert all its support and backing."
On Monday, the Labor Party will hold a political debate for the first time since Barak's election. In the meantime, Sneh is collecting the required number of signatures to force Barak and party secretary-general Eitan Cabel to convene the central committee for a similar debate. The feeling is that the tectonic plates under Barak are beginning to shift. He is likely to come under criticism from his Knesset faction over his policy-related performance. Amir Peretz does not miss an opportunity to savage Barak over the budget. Ami Ayalon, the recently appointed minister without portfolio, is upset at the appointment of Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, the national infrastructures minister, as acting defense minister during Barak's absence from the country; Ayalon thought he would get that honor. And even in Barak's court itself, winds of dissatisfaction and anger are blowing.
Ben-Eliezer's supporters are threatening to demand that the central committee, which will convene in November, appoint him chair of the party's municipal election headquarters, as well as to anchor him in the No. 2 slot in the next Knesset elections. Barak does not want that; it will cause problems with Peretz and Ayalon. But Barak is caught in a trap: If the demand is raised, and a secret vote is held, he will have to take a stand. If he supports the move, he will get into trouble with Peretz and Ayalon; if he opposes it, he will cause a major rift with Ben-Eliezer, who helped him get elected.
It's a lose-lose situation for Barak. Both options signal the end of the period of quiet in the party, and the return of the Labor we all know and love.
Ehud Olmert has chalked up no few precedents since becoming prime minister. Here's another one: He is the first prime minister in 15 years not to be assisted by a "house pollster." Actually, there seems to be one: Kalman Geier, the pollster of Olmert's Kadima party, who also worked with Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres and Ariel Sharon. Olmert inherited Geier from Sharon, but stopped using his services about five months ago. There is a complete professional divorce between them. And it's not that Olmert replaced Geier with another expert. Geier continues getting his salary from Kadima, and he is still carrying out surveys for the party's director general, MK Yohanan Plesner, and its cabinet ministers - Tzipi Livni, Roni Bar-On, Haim Ramon - just not for Olmert, the one who in effect pays him.
Geier is the last remnant of the "ranch forum," Sharon's group of advisers and spin doctors. The others - Reuven Adler, Eyal Arad, Lior Horev and Dov Weissglas - were shown the door by Olmert shortly after his election. Geier stayed around for another year or so. Now he, too, is gone. The common denominator of all the dropouts is the good relations each of them has with Foreign Minister Livni. Geier is particularly close to her. She often consults him and meets with him privately, both in her office and in her home in Tel Aviv.
Olmert's aides cite the Geier-Livni relationship as the main reason for the prime minister's decision to get rid of the polling services. Probably the last straw in the cooperation between Olmert and Geier came on May 1, when Livni called a press conference in the wake of the interim Winograd Committee report and advised Olmert to resign. Olmert's people found out that Geier had taken part in a meeting of Livni's closest confidants just minutes before the press conference. Worse: Before that, he had taken part in a similar meeting at the Prime Minister's Bureau. No sooner had the meeting with the prime minister ended than Geier left the building, crossed the road, climbed the hill and went to Livni. For Olmert - and, indeed, the same would have been the case with all of his predecessors - that was an unforgivable act.
An Olmert confidant cites another reason: Geier used to come to Olmert with advice, but no data. That irked the prime minister. Sources in Kadima say the tension between the two increased when Olmert declined to take Geier's advice on several issues, such as on the eve of his appointment of Peretz as defense minister. After the war, Geier thought that Peretz should be fired immediately. Olmert wanted to do that, but held back. And there were other problems, too.
In any event, these days the prime minister is making do with polls that are published in the newspapers. From them he learns what the public thinks of him. Contrary to his predecessors, he does not treat the polls as helpful working tools, but as something that rains on his parade. As far as he is concerned, the fewer the better.
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