Even if the prime minister holds on to his post for several more months, even a year, he will be preoccupied with trying to save his seat, and will find it difficult to conduct the affairs of state.
Ehud Olmert has no intention of resigning. He wants to fight for his political survival and clearing his name of the "investigations and the affairs." His determination is heartwarming, his cool during times of crises admirable, and he can also take pride in the growing economy, the reduction in Palestinian terrorism and his friendship with world leaders. Still, Olmert's fight looks like it stands no chance, following the double blow he suffered on Tuesday: the news of a criminal investigation into his role in the sale of Bank Leumi and the resignation of Chief of Staff Dan Halutz.
Even if the prime minister holds on to his post for several more months, even a year, he will be preoccupied with trying to save his seat, and will find it difficult to conduct the affairs of state. From this point on, Israel finds itself in a period of a leadership vacuum, characterized by a very thin line of leadership and very little content. Hopefully, the new chief of staff will use this period to rehabilitate the army, and there won't be another war in the territories or the North, to undermine the little internal stability that is left.
With the chief of staff gone, Olmert has been left alone among the leadership that managed the failed war in Lebanon. Amir Peretz is on his way out of the Defense Ministry, army commanders have resigned. Olmert is the last one standing, the only one available for removal. His arguments before the Winograd Committee are not bad ones: His predecessors neglected the Northern front; the army misled him; his decisions had the backing of both the professionals and the public. But he will find it difficult to convince the public and the media, who are eager to see the heads of the leadership roll, even if the committee ends up being lenient. Olmert's claims regarding the gains achieved by the war have long been forgotten; even Halutz admitted that the war harmed Israel's deterrent capability.
Troubles are closing in on Olmert. The public is tired of him and in one of the latest polls, his approval rating dropped to 14 percent. And that's the finding of a survey that preceded the news on the investigation into the Bank Leumi sale, the resignation of the chief of staff and the forthcoming conclusions of the Winograd Committee. Olmert's claim that the reality is fine, even if the polls are not, comes off like a bad joke. Even if he is right, it is clear that he has failed in explaining his position. His political allies, Haim Ramon and Abraham Hirchson, are caught in the teeth of law enforcement. The director of his bureau is caught up in the investigation of the Tax Authority. The ruling party, Kadima, appears in the polls to be undergoing a rerun of the Center Party's experience. Lacking an agenda since the shelving of the convergence plan, without a charismatic, popular leader, and infighting among its leaders, the party of the "Big Bang" has lost its raison d'etre, and the political system is gradually returning to the two-party structure.
Olmert's strategy is to keep his head down until the trouble passes, and then come up with a move to restore his dominance. Something like what Operation Defensive Shield or the Gaza disengagement were for Ariel Sharon. But what can he do? The diplomatic channels are blocked. Olmert refuses to talk to the Syrians, and the pseudo-talks with Abu Mazen will lead nowhere. Even if Olmert wants to carry out a dramatic concession, and release thousands of Palestinian prisoners and evacuate dozens of outposts, he cannot. His freedom to maneuver is blocked, on one side by Avigdor Lieberman, who is holding the coalition together, and on the other by the Hamas leadership that is holding Gilad Shalit.
Had Olmert wanted to turn to a defensive strategy, and use the public fears that emerged as a result of the war to build up Israel's arsenal and dig in, he's missed the opportunity. For that he would have had to remove Peretz and Halutz immediately following the war, and begin importing new weaponry from America. A military showcase operation, like Hassan Nasrallah's assassination, or the bombing of Iran's nuclear facilities, could restore his leadership, but these appear to be too risky. Bush will not approve an Israeli attack of the Iranians - not before he makes another diplomatic attempt at stopping them. But Olmert will not step down. He will continue fighting to prove his innocence.
And what about the country? For now, it will have to wait.
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