In the circumstances that developed after Ariel Sharon sank into a coma, Ehud Olmert was a perfectly reasonable candidate for prime minister, judging by what was known of his biography on election day.
His public experience and qualifications were equal to if not greater than those of his rivals in Kadima and other parties. There is also no doubt that since his election, Olmert has been doing his best to succeed in the job. And yet, the result is so disappointing that last week he was forced to make the "I'm an unpopular prime minister" speech, which was a plea for the public's mercy as much as a declaration of resoluteness and adherence to the cause. The gap between his intentions and their results, between the self-image and actual performance, requires examination.
Olmert is a reflection of domestic politics. The Israeli public arena is filled with people whose pretenses exceed their abilities. Suffice it to look at the scramble triggered last week by the Winograd Committee's announcement. Self-declared candidates and those of political groups and factions jockeyed for position in the premiership race even before the committee published its interim report and before it transpired whether Olmert will have to resign.
The list of people striving to replace Olmert raises the question of what makes them better than he to lead the state and to what extent the promise for which they pretend to stand can be kept? With all due respect to every one of them, is Meit Sheetrit, Shaul Mofaz or Avi Dichter the harbinger of a new era? Is Tzipi Livni likely to extract Israel from its distress? Is Shimon Peres, at his age, the optimal alternative to bear the burden of the task at hand? Has Benjamin Netanyahu been born again? And are those wishing to inherit from Amir Peretz in Labor endowed with unique qualities with an obvious advantage over their rivals in Kadima and the Likud?
The contradiction between the expectations and the results exists not only within the political arena but also in its relations with the public. The citizens choose their leaders hoping they are capable of running the state's affairs. Reality is frequently different. Not only because the elected officials' performance is disappointing, but also because the challenges they face are inestimably more complicated than they appeared to be on election day.
The uncertainty inherent in running the affairs of state yields unexpected developments to which the right response is a hair's breadth different from the wrong one. More than once knowing what is the proper response to evolving situations only becomes clear retroactively. But the public expects, justifiably, that its leaders be skilled in making the right decisions in real time.
The second Lebanon war demonstrated the gaps between the political and military leaders' self-image and their qualifications, and the distance between the public's expectations and the government's performance.
As a result of this discrepancy, the political arena is knocked for a loop. The ruling party is merely a hollow shell, its main coalition partner is divided by intrigue and on the verge of disintegration, and the main opposition party's parliamentary strength is no more than 10 percent of the parliament. All three parties are dividing the spoils before the contest has been waged. They all have their eye on the prime minister's seat before it has been vacated, making such a hullabaloo that Israel looks like a demented country.
A government is not some technicality; it is legitimized only by voters. No political shenanigans, even if technically in order, can give Kadima, Labor or Likud leaders any authority to run the country if Olmert does go. There is no other way to win the public's confidence but to hold new elections, focusing on Israel's situation after the war.
It is difficult to see how a different cabinet would be able, with the incumbent Knesset, to rally the nation to the flag, including another military campaign, as the military leaders and Shin Bet security service are recommending in view of Hamas' gaining strength in Gaza.
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