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There are two ways to put together a puzzle: to take the pieces and try time after time to put each one in the right place until the entire picture is created, and to observe the picture in-depth from the beginning and identify in advance where every piece should go. When Prime Minister Ehud Olmert spoke yesterday about the prisoner-exchange deal with Hezbollah, he revealed the system he uses to make decisions: trial and error.

Olmert did not come to the cabinet meeting like a leader who can see into the distance, like someone with a definite outlook or a basic moral belief about the sensitive issue about to be decided. No, instead he stood before the ministers (and the public) brandishing his right to waver. This is a position, or perhaps merely a pose, that is human and endearing, and gives rise to empathy - but it is disappointing when it is held by the man at the helm of the country.

In the week preceding yesterday's government decision, Olmert swayed back and forth like someone who had suffered an attack of vertigo and was trying to keep his balance. He vacillated to and fro, between support for the deal and rejection of it, while trying to avoid having to make a decision in the first place by turning the matter over to the chief rabbi of the Israel Defense Forces (a move from which he also backtracked). Olmert appeared embarrassed and confused, so his advisers fashioned a new image for him: not a leader who had learned from the past or a decisive and successful prime minister (the image they had previously promulgated in an attempt to balance the impression of the testimony given by Morris Talansky), but rather an ordinary person for whom doubts are legitimate. And thus it was that Olmert opened yesterday's cabinet meeting by stressing the right to waver, and that was also the connecting thread in the remarks he made afterward - when, at long last, he revealed his point of view to the ministers.

Someone who has pretensions to lead the nation is supposed to come to a decisive meeting, such as that which took place yesterday in the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem, with a clear opinion that he is certain is right. Olmert did make touching remarks, but he sounded like someone who was being dragged along by the course of events rather than someone who was directing it. The gist of his statement was that next time, in similar circumstances, the government of Israel would have to stem the domestic and foreign pressure to pay the price the enemy was demanding in return for bringing home prisoners or captives.

Olmert said the prime ministers who preceded him would have preferred to reject the enemy's dictates, but left this challenge to their successors instead. He sounded like someone who was ready for a minute to take on this mission now, at the moment when the fate of captive soldiers Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev was being decided, but he too was overpowered by the campaign of pressure that was brought to bear on him. He excused his decision with the argument, "We were too late," and promised to learn his lesson for the future.

This was not well-considered conduct; Olmert was improvising and adapting his position to events, some of which had gone beyond the government's control. Olmert's statement to the cabinet reiterated well-known truths, such as comradeship in arms and the state's need to guarantee the lives of its soldiers, but there were also passages that sounded like a defense of his conduct, especially regarding the matter of declaring the two soldiers dead. The decision was the right one under the circumstances, and it also reflects something about Olmert's character - that he is a person who has human compassion and is not impervious to the suffering of others, like some of his predecessors in the post (and some of those who wish to succeed him). But his conduct undermined his status as the person bearing ultimate responsibility for the affairs of state.

Olmert was not guided by a staunch political outlook (for example, one must not bow to blackmail from the enemy) or by a basic moral conception (for example, the redemption of prisoners is a supreme value). He acted like someone who had to make an ad hoc decision under conditions of uncertainty. That is the daily lot of a prime minister, and he must be sufficiently steadfast to deal with this task, instead of turning the decision-making process into a stormy emotional scene in which the citizens of the country take part, led by the families of the captive soldiers. Olmert looked yesterday like someone from whose hands the decision had been snatched and given over to uncontrollable forces.