Politicians at war
As the Gaza operation drags on and with elections looming, Israel's leaders are vying over who will get credit for what and - more important even - who's to blame for operational shortcomings
Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni took over the TV screens last weekend, mainly via Channel 2, the country's most watched station. She was interviewed from Paris last Thursday, appeared in the combat version of "Meet the Press" on Saturday evening and the next day on "Fact," which was broadcast from Kibbutz Yad Mordechai, located just north of the Gaza Strip. The aim of this media blitz - this "Blitzipi" - was to mark territory.
The word "I" was repeated endlessly in the interviews: "I have to be prime minister," "I am not going to make agreements with Hamas," "I am waiting for the international community and Egypt to organize," "I made it clear that I bear responsibility for the return of Gilad Shalit," "I am not entering into negotiations with Hamas, I intend to weaken them," "I intend to create better conditions on the ground," "I sent these soldiers," and so on. This is not the Livni we saw in the Second Lebanon War, who told the Winograd Committee - which investigated the handling of that conflict - that the prime minister tended to ignore her and did not respond to her diplomatic initiatives (which Ehud Olmert continues to maintain were nonexistent). Afterward, that posture in fact helped her emerge unscathed from the failed war.
This time, for better or worse, she is identified with the war - from its start down to whatever its aftermath will be. She pushed for the operation months before Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi agreed to it. She takes part in all the meetings of the "troika," and unlike its other two members, Olmert and Barak, who have not yet given interviews, for her, television studios have become almost like a second home. She comes across as tough, intimidating, threatening. If the operation fails, Livni will not be able to evade responsibility.
Barak is already preparing his political narrative for the day after the war. In a private conversation, held midweek, he told an interlocutor, "The army carried out all its missions. The person who has so far failed to put together a cease-fire is Livni."
The political wrangling that will characterize the final stretch of the election campaign will not focus on the economy. Or on integrity, for that matter. The subject will be security and failure. Barak will accuse Livni of failing to prepare the political and diplomatic ground to leverage his military achievements; she will fire back that the last tahadiyeh - the cease-fire with Hamas - which he arranged, helped Hamas arm and strengthen itself, by allowing it to smuggle in long-range rockets capable of hitting Be'er Sheva and Gedera.
That's right: the same tahadiyeh she voted for in June 2008 and from which she is now dissociating herself.
As good as a man
On Wednesday evening, after the lengthy security cabinet meeting, cabinet minister Haim Ramon appeared on commercial Channel 10 and on state Channel 1. He had just one aim: to attack Barak, accuse him of responsibility for the previous tahadiyeh's failure, and warn that it would be ruinous for Israel if Barak succeeds once again in maneuvering the security cabinet to back a similar cease-fire to end the current fighting. Whether Ramon was sent to the studios by Kadima party strategists Eyal Arad and Reuven Adler, or whether he appeared of his own volition, it was a transparent performance. With the general election just a month away, and Barak gaining in popularity in the polls, someone has to deal with him, and that someone is Ramon, under the guise of concern for the country's security.
Of the three candidates for prime minister, Livni is in the most problematic position. Barak does not have to prove anything. He is "Mr. Security." Benjamin Netanyahu, shrouded in statesmanlike silence, is waiting for the end of the war before he begins reminding the public just who it was who warned years ago about an emerging "Hamastan" in Gaza and who was active against the Gaza disengagement (even though he voted for it in both the cabinet and the Knesset). Netanyahu is dying for the day to arrive when he will be able to say, "I told you so."
But Livni, who until a few weeks ago was perceived as being locked in a battle with Barak over leadership of the "peace camp" and the center-left public, has abandoned the traditional role of the foreign minister who opts for diplomatic activism. When Barak raised the subject of the French initiative for a humanitarian cease-fire in a troika meeting, Livni was the first to reject it, and vociferously. Now, after proving to the world that she is not a wimpy peacenik, she is joining Barak in an attempt to find a way to end the operation. In Wednesday's security cabinet meeting, she and Barak spoke more or less in the same voice, whereas Olmert and Ramon were in favor of pushing ahead and crushing Gaza from deep inside.
Livni reads polls and understands that the security credit will go to Ehud Barak. So she has to make sure that the diplomatic settlement will be identified with her. Olmert, according to his aides, will be generous toward her. He will give her room to maneuver, even though right from the start he has been the one conducting the real diplomatic moves. It's not that he has suddenly become fond of her - but he is even less fond of Barak. He is allowing her to act in the diplomatic arena, and when she has to be called to order, he does so privately.
In cabinet and security cabinet meetings, Olmert heaps effusive praise on her and flatters her. This also takes on physical expression, in gestures and patting her hand. Once he even hugged her. In last week's cabinet meeting, he told the ministers admiringly that Livni had met with French President Nicolas Sarkozy the preceding Thursday, returned to Israel after eight hours and had gone immediately to his office, for a meeting that lasted until 5 A.M.
"Everyone always talks about how hard men can work," Olmert said. "Tzipi is proving that she is no less fit than any man sitting here." Even when he compliments the senior minister in the cabinet, the best he can do is say that she is just as good as a man.
In Sunday's cabinet meeting, some 14 hours after the start of the ground offensive, the ministers were euphoric. Some of them mentioned the weekend polls, which were flattering to the government, the prime minister and the defense minister. The meeting's sober-eyed participants were those who know from first-hand experience what a ground offensive entails: Barak, Shaul Mofaz (a former chief of staff) and Benjamin Ben-Eliezer (a retired senior officer). Olmert was the most sober-eyed of them all. The man whose political fate was sealed by the arrogance he evinced in the summer of 2006 - the unreasonable goals he set and the bellicose speeches he delivered during the war - is a different Olmert today, more cautious, more modest, more judicious.
"I suggest that we all calm down," he told the ministers. "I also suggest that you take the weekend polls in the papers, frame them and hang them on your office wall. Because these are polls that were carried out after three or four days [of events]. I know these polls. Believe me, after things get bogged down, after the news [of casualties] starts coming in, the polls will change, the media will reverse its stand and so will the commentators. First of all the commentators. They are always the first to change their tune." Olmert, who experienced the betrayal of the commentators in August 2006, is no longer part of the political game. He must have been pleased with the poll published in Haaretz a week ago, which showed a dramatic rise in the public's favorable perception of his performance as prime minister, from 14 percent to 33 percent. Still, that won't make much of a difference now, other than to allow him a more dignified and positive exit.
According to the present timetable, the election will be held on February 10. Coalition talks take about a month. So Olmert should step down in mid-March. But if the election is postponed because of the war, Olmert will be with us for longer. That very undesirable scenario is likely to be realized only if it is decided to expand the operation and move to Phase 3, involving a deep thrust into Gaza, the capture of territory and the call-up of more reservists.
For the time being, Labor and Likud object to postponing the election. They are both rising in the polls. A delay could hurt them. Kadima is also still calling for the election to be held as planned. But Haim Oron, the head of Meretz, takes a different approach: "If the operation is expanded and deepened," he says, "there will not be an election. The days ahead will decide when it will take place." By the way, President Shimon Peres this week told a small forum that he thinks the election should go ahead as scheduled.
The leader of the Pensioners Party, Rafi Eitan, suddenly went on the radio, saying that it is essential to postpone the election. Eitan, whose party is hovering between disappearance and getting just enough votes to enter the Knesset, is considered Olmert's long arm. When Eitan suggested this idea in the cabinet, before going public, no few political ears perked up.
After all, who will be served by a postponement? Olmert, of course, who likes his present job. Now maybe more than ever. And also Knesset Speaker Dalia Itzik (also of Kadima), who is deeply attached to that title. And of course many MKs, who know that they will not be returning to the next Knesset. There are quite a few of them in Kadima, a few in Labor, some on the right and of course in the Arab parties. If broad agreement is reached among the parties, that will be a different story. In the end the High Court of Justice will decide. As always.
Confidants of the prime minister said this week that he has no such intention, that he has nothing to do with the election postponement initiative and that he is occupied solely with the military operation and not with politics. But when it comes to Olmert, politicians' suspiciousness reaches new heights. A few ministers claimed this week that Olmert is being so nice to Livni because of his desire to postpone the election.
Cease-fire of Ehuds?
Despite all the bad blood that now flows between the two Ehuds, who were once good friends, both connoisseurs of good cigars and fine wine, Olmert and Barak are succeeding in managing the Gaza campaign without undue friction. They talk for hours every day, whether in meetings or in conference calls, with the participation of Livni and/or the chief of staff.
Olmert is mature and wise enough to let Barak handle things. The following exchange between the two in a cabinet meeting was transcribed by someone who shall remain anonymous.
Olmert to the cabinet: "You know that I think, and also say, that Ehud Barak has all kinds of weaknesses, right? We know that, right? He has weaknesses, he is not perfect. But when it comes to understanding security matters, neither I nor anyone else can take anything away from him. He is not perfect, he is not trendy, he is not nice."
Barak: "That's right. And I'm not a buddy-buddy type."
Minister Shalom Simhon: "But you will admit that he is a leader."
Olmert gestures with his hands: "That I leave up to you."