Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is completing his tenure in office as Mr. Almost. He failed to achieve his major goals, like ending the occupation of the territories and blocking Iran's nuclear program. As for his gains in bolstering Israel's international standing, he squandered them with the war in the Gaza Strip. The boycott against Hamas is crumbling, Syria stopped negotiations before they reached maturity, and the only thing Olmert can toot his horn about is the destruction of the Syrian nuclear reactor, about which he does not speak publicly.
"I was an inch away from a deal with the Palestinians," Olmert said at one of his farewell parties. He evidently wanted to praise himself, but that inch is precisely what differentiates between a leader who leaves behind a historic legacy - like David Ben-Gurion, Menachem Begin, Yitzhak Rabin or Ariel Sharon - and a loser with commendable intentions but poor execution. "What can we do," Olmert said sadly. "Sometimes reality is different from our expectations."
The war in the Gaza Strip was the expression par excellence of Olmert's weak leadership. Just as in Lebanon in 2006, this time, too, he did not know when to stop. Instead of giving the enemy a painful blow and going back to the lull, Israel was drawn into the unnecessary killing of hundreds of Palestinian civilians, while gaining nothing: no Hamas surrender, no release of Gilad Shalit, and not even a deterrent against the continued rocket fire.
Olmert's peace declarations and the Annapolis process, which gained him support from the international community, lost their value with every increase in the number of graves in the Gaza Strip. Israel suffered the severance of ties, a crisis in relations with Turkey and Egypt and more active protests abroad than ever before. The Obama administration is keeping the necessary distance from Israel to make it appear like the honest broker in the Middle East and to move closer to Iran and Syria.
And as if this were not enough, it is hard to imagine a sadder end to Olmert's tenure than Military Intelligence chief Amos Yadlin's announcement at the cabinet meeting Sunday that Iran has "crossed the technological threshold" on its way to acquiring a nuclear bomb and that henceforth "it is just a matter of strategy."
Olmert is not to blame for Iran's progress in enriching uranium or for the ineffectiveness of the weak sanctions imposed on Tehran. But his statements in recent years ("the Iranian issue preoccupies me more than anything else," "I want to tell the citizens of Israel that Iran will not acquire nuclear capability") gave the impression that we have someone we can rely upon, someone who is capable and is trying to stop the Iranian bomb. Most probably, Olmert toyed with the idea of bombing Iran and got a negative response from George W. Bush. But even if circumstances overtook him, the result still remains a big failure.
This bad news represents a great opportunity for Benjamin Netanyahu. In 1996 he succeeded the peace heroes, Rabin and Shimon Peres, and this time he will replace an unpopular prime minister, who left a minimal mark on the country's history. Just as Israel's international standing has reached a low point, Netanyahu can correct the situation and, in a positive way, surprise the rest of the world, which considers him to be a stubborn right-wing extremist.
Netanyahu should not waste time on futile clashes over the question of a two-state solution. Like his predecessors, he, too, is committed to the road map, which paves the way for a Palestinian state; he does not have to say any more. In any case, there is no reliable Palestinian partner at this time for an accord. Netanyahu will win the world's respect if he avoids the aggressive policy of his predecessor and keeps his promise to improve the Palestinian economy by taking visible steps; entering into negotiations with Syria will help, too. And if he wants to surprise everyone, he will pass the Arab initiative in the cabinet, with reservations, the way Sharon did with the road map.
Is Netanyahu capable of this? He is faced with two challenges. The first will be his ability to overcome the opposition of the defense establishment to ease the closures and roadblocks in the territories. This will not be easy: Netanyahu was not a general like Rabin or Sharon, and his relations with the army have been characterized in the past by mutual suspicion.
But the bigger challenge for Netanyahu will be himself. Will he hide behind the argument that no one loves him and go back to his unnecessary battle with "the elites," "the left," "the media" and "the establishment," or will he behave like a statesman? His decision to form a right-wing government and give up on unity is reminiscent of the old Bibi. Will he behave differently when he replaces Olmert? That will be his test.
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