Text size

Nowadays a person takes his life into his hands to say a good word - or not say a bad one - about Ehud Olmert. The prime minister has painted himself into such a corner that criticizing him has become the national bon ton. He gets criticized even before he opens his mouth or finishes a sentence about the kidnapped soldiers, or Gaza, or whatever social, political or military affair he decides to comment on. The blows hit him from all sides - right, left, front and back. It doesn't matter anymore what he says or does, or doesn't do. He gets it even if he keeps his mouth shut.

You need to be made of special stuff to trigger that kind of Pavlovian response, and Olmert apparently has what it takes. Not that his predecessors were necessarily nicer, or more consistent, or more honest than he is. Far from it. But Olmert is perhaps the first Israeli prime minister who hasn't developed an ounce of charisma or become anyone's favorite while in high office. No one is hailing him "Olmert king of Israel," and no one believes a word he says.

Unlike his great nemesis, Benjamin Netanyahu, for example, no significant sector has announced it stands behind him, not even out of perverse hatred of his opponents.

The irony of his situation is accentuated all the more by the inflated parliamentary coalition he has padded himself with as he sinks like a stone in the surveys and public esteem.

With all the uniqueness of this phenomenon, it is worth remembering that many of Israel's prime ministers went through phases - which might be called Rabin I, via Shamir and Golda Meir, to Rabin II - and stumbled through similar slumps.

It always begins with fabulously high hopes (a new person has been voted in, someone coming from a different place, who may surprise us with a new dawn) and right after that everything nosedives (the shooting goes on, the suicide bombers return and everything is back to normal, or worse).

At this stage, the prime minister goes into vertigo. Cries of disappointment batter him from all sides, and his self-confidence plummets too. He starts flailing around in search of some foothold and usually adopts what might be called the Golda swagger or the Shamir strut ? in other words, clinging to rigid, reactionary policies as a way of freeze-framing reality, or at least summoning up some "quiet, quiet quiet!" to quote Ariel Sharon's famous cry when he went through that phase.

Does the prime minister get his peace and quiet? No, he does not. The trust of the right and the settlers, always grabbing on to some false messiah in the opposition, cannot be restored, and the support of the left, the elite, the media and the leaders of the West disappears in a wink.

Down he goes in the polls. His pockets empty, he begins thrashing around once more in search of some political move that could save the day. But it is too late. He runs out of steam. The next thing we know, something terrible happens. Whatever he might have achieved is pulled out from under his feet.

Where is Olmert situated on this graph? With his days in the prime minister's office in a kind of accelerated mode - the Golda swagger (including the Yom Kippur War fiasco) already kicked in when he was three months in office - one might say that he is in the Rabin II stage, i.e., searching for the right path but without the maturation process of his predecessors, or a stitch of public trust. He has talked too much and thrashed around too much.

Here and there, Olmert has shown signs of great courage, flexibility, mental agility, ability to break with convention and fresher vision than those who have gone before. One can see it in his declared new approach to the price of freeing the kidnapped soldiers and the need for restraint in Gaza, in his willingness to make concessions, even in his decision to go to war on Hezbollah, which won wall-to-wall support before the failings of the army came to light.

But Olmert's frenzied behavior of late reminds me of the old story about the frog who falls into a bowl of cream and saves himself from drowning by thrashing around so much that the cream turns to butter.

The trouble is that the ingredients in Olmert's batter are still lumpy. They don't seem to blend. What is missing is some kind of stabilizer that previous prime ministers added to their bowl, even when they were zigzagging like crazy.

Who knows? Maybe a few more stirs will do the trick. True, we have a prime minister who is not lovable, not fatherly or motherly or sweet and cuddly. But is that a reason to sit there with a smile and wait for him to drown, letting the whole batter go sour? Moreover, he isn't the only one thrashing around in the bowl. If he goes under, a lot of high hopes will go with him. So maybe we should be a bit more patient. Drowning can always be a last resort.