If I had to give a name to the Bush-Olmert meeting, I would call it the Summit of the Bunglers. Both of them are mixed up in wars that have no solution despite the might of their armies. Both are saddled with deadweights in the defense department. Bush has let his secretary of defense go; Ehud Olmert is still in partnership with his. Both were dragged into a military campaign without thinking about the consequences or the price tag. Both are doing poorly in the opinion polls. Some 72 percent of Israelis are in favor of ousting the defense minister and the chief of staff, and Olmert's popularity has taken a similar dive.
In front of the cameras, the two leaders smacked one another on the back, each for his own reasons. Bush, for example, has two more years in the White House, and he can still get back on track. Even a lame-duck president has considerable authority. He can change his policies, and, most importantly, he can fire government secretaries, aides, generals and anyone who gave him lousy advice, appointing better people in their place.
Olmert, on the other hand, wanted to strengthen Israel's image by creating the impression that he's got muscles in the Iraqi and Iranian department, and that he and Bush are in cahoots. He ended up embarrassing the U.S. administration, the Republicans and the American Jewish community.
With Israel's "successes" in the war in Lebanon and Beit Hanun, and its inability to stop the Qassam rockets, he probably had America's generals racing for the Pentagon bomb shelters. They already refused our help back in the Gulf War, so you can imagine how much they want it now, in Iraq and Iran. The U.S. Defense Department is beginning to understand what has also dawned on Israelis of late - that the Israel Defense Forces is not what it used to be. The last thing the Pentagon wants is our assistance in matters they don't know how to handle themselves. Have we managed to fix our own problems?
Olmert towed along to America his domestic troubles regarding who should take the blame for the Lebanon fiasco. He made a mistake to back the chief of staff when senior officers and many important public figures demanded his resignation. He made another mistake in changing his mind, and calling up the chief of staff to say there had been a misunderstanding and he did support him fully. That only added insult to injury. In the sports world, when a team's management comes out in public support of a coach, it's a sign he'll be out on his head soon. Because if everything is so fine and dandy, what does he need the backing for?
This whole dispute over who is responsible for the bungled business of an army that wasn't ready, and for a war that did not have to be so long, incur such a high death toll and cause so much suffering to the home front is a bunch of bull. To stick with the sports terminology, the chief of staff needs to hang up his boots and his fancy shades without waiting for the investigating committees to finish their work. As a soldier with no understanding of land combat, he was the wrong man in the wrong job at the wrong time.
And if we're talking about the army's lack of readiness, much of the blame falls on the shoulders of Moshe Ya'alon, who is a land operations man, and has been silent as a fish in this raucous shouting match of reservists and army officers.
Responsibility for the flawed decision to go to war is divided in ascending or descending order between the prime minister, defense minister and chief of staff. Olmert has refused to come up with a new policy package to move peace forward, as suggested by Tzipi Livni, and intelligence and Shin Bet security service sources are predicting another round of fighting in the North and the South. As things stand, neither Amir Peretz nor Dan Halutz are good choices for getting the army back on its feet and ready for action.
In the despondent atmosphere of Israel today, the key question is not only whether the defense minister understood where the chief of staff was going, but whether the prime minister asked the right questions before he approved the operation. Although Ehud Olmert cannot resign without calling for elections, supreme responsibility for this foul-up is his, and his alone. As the big boss, he may find himself on the doorstep long before Bush leaves the White House, and not necessarily in a country that is fun to live in.
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