Touch and go for PM
Is Olmert capable of a recovery? Will the across-the-board dissatisfaction with the current leadership overcome concerns about what the alternative might bring?
Ehud Olmert's credit line was exhausted this week. From the rock bottom at which he found himself so early in his term of office, he is now subject to the mercies of the public, a prisoner in the hands of a fickle people that raises its leaders to the heights, and then throws them down to the depths with the velocity of a roller coaster. From now on, Olmert will be required to pay his bills up front. If he does well, he will gain support; if he does badly, or doesn't do at all, then he will be tormented further, until he is crushed.
We have already had leaders that fell and rose and fell again: Yitzhak Rabin, one year after his election, was receiving poor grades. And then came Oslo and he soared upwards, but on the eve of his assassination, Netanyahu was all over him in the polls. Ariel Sharon hit a nadir during his first year on the job, when buses were blowing up on a daily basis and he just stood there, powerless. His fortunes changed when he embarked on Operation Defensive Shield and regained his popularity.
Is Olmert capable of a recovery? Will the across-the-board dissatisfaction with the current leadership overcome concerns about what the alternative might bring? Olmert is not allowing himself to wallow in melancholy. He has no plans to place his head in the noose in order to wring a round of applause from the crowd. We have to work, he is telling his people; we have to produce results.
He feels that the criticism over the committees he set up will soon fade away. The people that he appointed are serious people, who will not be afraid to say what they think, to the same degree that the people who will appear before the committee - and everyone will appear, he says - will be afraid not to say the truth, the whole truth and only the truth. The members of the committee are no suckers. He is amused by the criticism that he has known David Ivri for years, or that Yedidya Yaari is the CEO of Rafael. How could he not know Ivri? And what would he do to Rafael if the conclusions of the committee are not to his liking - close down the most important defense industry in the country?
The 20-20 hindsight makes him chuckle. Let's suppose he would have opted for the proposal to wait 48 hours, and only then attack. In the course of those 48 hours would he have looked into the state of the army's wartime equipment bases? The flak jackets? To what level of detail should a prime minister descend? The critical decision was to go to war. He takes full responsibility for it. Any explanations will be given to the Admoni committee.
Aides say that any decision he would have made would have drawn criticism. Had he decided to set up a state commission of inquiry, critics would be saying that he is a dishrag and is only dragging the country into a protracted state of paralysis. Dalia Itzik, who broke down in tears this week in Olmert's office, after describing to him her visits to the impoverished homes of bereaved families, says that saying no to a state commission of inquiry is also a mark of leadership.
On political matters, he is of two minds. He doesn't know what we would do if in the middle of next week the cabinet ministers of the Labor Party, led by Amir Peretz, unanimously voted against his inquiry committees. Evidently, he would grin and bear it.
In his own party, he has - as yet - not come across any serious problems. In spite of all the trouble, he is still considered the glue that holds everyone together there. His status in Kadima is much stronger than that of Peretz in Labor, because he has no serious competitors in Kadima. He has no one to compare with Sharon's "Netanyahu," the natural heir. This week, the entire leadership of his party expressed support for him: Peres, Dichter, Sheetrit, Bar-On, and Hirchson.
Tzipi Livni, his deputy, has not yet taken a position. Once again, she has chosen to remain silent. In principle, she, too, backs the solution of a committee of inquiry as opposed to a state commission, but her support is conditional and somewhat halfhearted: if the commission executed the inquiry in a businesslike, speedy and fundamental manner, then Livni would consider it a reasonable solution. But she still has to find out more about the mandate of the committee. Until she is convinced, she will not have a good word to say about it. Olmert can wait.
On Saturday night, about half of the participants in the bull session of Olmert's advisers and counselors, which took place in the Prime Minister's residence, were in favor of establishing a state commission of inquiry. The director general of the Prime Minister's Office, Raanan Dinur, cabinet secretary Israel Maimon, adviser Lior Horev and deputy head of staff Oved Yehezkel, told him to go for the state commission. It will buy you two years of quiet, they said. Only Reuven Adler, Sharon's senior adviser, felt that there was no need to investigate anything, and certainly not to set up a state commission. Adler was close to Sharon, back in '82. He accompanied him to the Kahan Commission, and experienced the humiliation from up close. Ever since then, Adler has never wanted to hear the words "state commission" again.
The dream and its remains
Benjamin Netanyahu made a strategic decision this week: He wants to be prime minister. On the face of it, there is nothing new to that. Nevertheless, Netanyahu's decision has one meaning: He will not join Olmert, even if the Labor Party withdraws and he is offered a respectable position, as well as respect, to enter the coalition. I, he says, in private conversation, am going to replace Olmert - not save him.
Nor will he join even if Olmert leaves and his place as prime minister is taken by another Kadima minister: Sheetrit, Dichter, Livni or Mofaz, each of whom considers him or herself a candidate, and who intends to contend for the Olmert legacy. Netanyahu rates his chances of becoming prime minister in this Knesset as being good. The scenario that is making the rounds of his inner circle goes something like this: In the course of debates over the 2007 budget, it becomes obvious that the coalition is not equal to the task. The clock starts to count down to early elections, and then a third (the minimum required by law for withdrawal - Y.V.) or more members of the Kadima faction, who do not owe anything to Olmert, or to Kadima, withdraw from the party and join the Likud faction. Only such a move, which is not without logic, would get Netanyahu back into the Prime Minister's office.
In this scenario, Netanyahu could form a government with the ultra-Orthodox and the right and the pensioners. The only thing that spoils his optimistic mood is the Avigdor Lieberman question. Netanyahu is alarmed at the prospect of Lieberman destroying his dream by joining the coalition. Now, with Olmert's plan to unilaterally withdraw from West Bank territories no longer on the table, the common denominator between Lieberman and Olmert is broader than that between Amir Peretz and Olmert. Perhaps this is also the problem: that as long as Labor is in the coalition, Lieberman will have nothing to do with it. He doesn't want to be some superfluous add-on. He wants to be a senior coalition partner, one who sets policy and wields influence. This is why he is playing hard to get, and naming such a high price: minister of defense. Lieberman knows that if he is to be Olmert's lifeline - Olmert is prepared to pay full market price. And if not, well then, it didn't hurt to ask.
Yatom the letdown
Danny Yatom was GOC of Central Command, Director of the Mossad, military secretary to Prime Minister Begin and head of Prime Minister Ehud Barak's political-security staff. He understands security, but as a politician he has been no raging success. Since entering politics, buck privates and junior officers in his own party have run circles around him on a daily basis. Now he feels his time has come. That the people ye arn for a leader with security expertise. He has announced his candidacy for the party leadership. Essentially, he is running to improve his standing, to upgrade his ranking in the party leadership. Yatom openly admits that if in the course of his campaign he comes to understand that he would be getting in the way of someone else (for instance, Ehud Barak or Ami Ayalon) from beating Peretz - then he would not be an obstacle. But he is not at all convinced that Peretz will even run. In his opinion, Peretz will be forced to leave due to the conclusions reached by the committee that investigates his performance in the war. Yatom intends to ask to appear before the commission or commissions. During the war, he met with the defense minister. His testimony might possibly relate to a conversation they had. Yatom believes that his words would carry weight. He also estimates that Olmert could emerge unscathed.
Another politician in Peretz's party, who is also known for his security acumen, said this week that unlike Yatom he was not asked to see Peretz, even once. But who was in the practice of consulting with him on a regular basis, once a week? Olmert.
When I speak, the man said, there is going to be an earthquake. And so it is. They, the members of his party are closing in, from every direction, on Chairman Peretz. People who spoke with Peretz this week described him as a lonely man, who is surrounded by a few advisers who are trying in a panic to find him an "agenda" that would extricate him from the valley of the shadow of death - negotiations with Syria, support for a state commission of inquiry, or re-embrace of the social agenda in advance of the 2007 budget - but the opinion polls are having their effect.
Peretz describes himself as being between a rock and a hard place: the army, whose every morbidity and failure has suddenly become his problem; and Olmert, who has an agenda and troubles of his own. Between the two, he is being pressured by the rebels in his faction, who hover about like a school of sharks around an exhausted baby whale.
One member of his faction, who actually supports him, told him this week: Go for a state commission of inquiry, go for it with all the gusto you can muster. After all, you couldn't get less than the single percentage point that you received (in response to the question of suitability as prime minister in a Dahaf poll published in Yedioth Ahronoth - Y.V.).
Fourth branch of government
The flare-up that erupted this week between Ehud Olmert and Micha Lindenstrauss was allegedly about manners and proper behavior: The State Comptroller, an overweening and unpredictable person, who was seemingly insulted by Olmert's having asked him through the media to investigate the handling of the war on the home front. This, despite the fact that Olmert acted in accordance with the law, and even took pains to call Lindenstrauss "the Honorable State Comptroller." One imagines that there are greater insults than this.
Anyone who knows what is going on between these two men understands that the sarcastic statements exchanged between their offices are concealing something else. The report Lindenstrauss and his subordinates are preparing about the purchase of the Olmert's apartment at 8 Cremieux Street in Jerusalem is almost complete. Sources in the comptroller's office have been telling politicians and reporters that Olmert's days in office are numbered. And that is before Olmert has even been questioned or given an opportunity to give his version. These leaks, say aides to Olmert, essentially make any further questioning superfluous. If it has clearly been decided up front that Olmert is "finished" then what form would the questioning take? Off the record, they say things about the comptroller that no newspaper would dare print.
In any event, it is obvious that this preposterous debate is only a promo of what awaits us in the Olmert-Lindenstrauss arena. One diplomat recently related, in private conversation, that he was invited a few weeks ago to a meeting with a very senior official in the State Comptroller's office. There are four branches of government in Israel, he was told, not three. The judicial branch, the legislative branch, the executive branch, and the comptroller branch. The diplomat was surprised. That is not what he thought about Israel. In the same meeting, he was treated to some juicy details about the Olmert file.