The shuffling of portfolios in Ehud Olmert's cabinet illustrates the saying that in life nothing is more important than timing and circumstances.
On the face of it, as of yesterday Israel seems to have a dream government. Even if not all the ministers are a perfect fit for their ministries, it is hard to imagine a more talented and experienced team in the country's leadership. Olmert, Ehud Barak, Tzipi Livni and Haim Ramon in the foreign and defense ministries. The aggressive and sharp-tongued Roni Bar-On in the Finance Ministry. Prof. Daniel Friedmann in Justice. The experienced veterans Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, Shaul Mofaz, Isaac Herzog, Meir Sheetrit, Eli Yishai and Avigdor Lieberman in the second tier. Shimon Peres in the President's Residence. Benjamin Netanyahu and Silvan Shalom heading the opposition.
This impressive team could have done great things, had it begun its work after the elections. But its arrival on the playing field is unfortunately belated. A precious year was wasted on Olmert's unsuccessful appointments at the defense and finance ministries, on the war in Lebanon and its aftermath and on the affairs and investigations of top government officials. In the time remaining of its term, the Olmert government will be engaged in internal struggles and in preoccupation with the next elections, rather than in promoting diplomatic steps.
The main issue on the renewed government's agenda will be the credibility of the defense minister. In spite of Barak's deliberately vague statements, the public expects him to pull Labor out of the government and cause Olmert's downfall when the final Winograd Committee report is published. And if he doesn't bring down the government, the public expects that he will at least set an agreed-upon date to hold elections soon. Barak's associates are promising: "In October we're out." But the promise looks empty at the moment.
In the Kirya defense complex in Tel Aviv, they were happy about Barak's return. After the unfortunate year of Amir Peretz, whose authority was limited to his title, "Mr. Minister," the generals and the senior officials are enjoying working with someone who understands situation assessments and operational plans. Barak's problem, as the Peace Index demonstrated yesterday, is that the public has not yet internalized his new image and is showing a clear preference for Netanyahu as the person who will maintain security and promote peace. Activists who helped Barak in his campaign describe hatred of him in the bastions of Labor in North Tel Aviv, of all places.
In this situation, it is questionable whether three months will be enough for Barak to position himself as the new "Mr. Security" and to compete in the elections from a position of advantage over Netanyahu. If he resigns in October, he will find it difficult to exercise leadership from the opposition, when he is not even a Knesset member. And thus the coming months will focus on the internal tension between rehabilitating Barak's image and his promise to resign after the Winograd report, on the one hand, and the political tricks Olmert and Ramon will pull on him to get him stuck deep inside the cabinet. Such a situation is a cause for celebration for the political correspondents and the radio chat shows, but leaves little energy for foreign and defense policy.
In the Israeli reality, where elections are won from the position of the moderate right, the thought that the government is about to fall is enough to ensure that policy will be limited to passing time in power. Someone who needs every cabinet vote to survive in his seat will not take chances with controversial decisions. In any case, the strategic environment is not promising in light of the split in the Palestinian Authority and the American veto of talks with Syria.
President George W. Bush signed an order a week ago that forbids Syrian President Bashar Assad and his associates, who are suspected of undermining democracy in Lebanon, from entering the United States. Bush used derogatory names to describe the Syrian regime, the most moderate of which was "kleptocracy." It is hard to imagine he will suddenly see Assad as "a partner for peace."
What can be achieved during this twilight period? The new Olmert government will have to create a cease-fire with Hamas in Gaza, under the aegis of the vain talk of "strengthening Abu Mazen" in the West Bank; to rehabilitate the Israel Defense Forces, while being supremely careful to avoid a military confrontation with Syria; and to lead a national and international effort, together with Netanyahu, against the nuclear threat from Iran.
Success will be measured in the preservation of economic stability and defense and in preventing problems and escalation on the borders. The initiatives, the changes and innovation will apparently be left to the next government.
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