Over the last few weeks, the Israeli government has changed dramatically, as manifested by Yisrael Beiteinu leader Avigdor Lieberman's entry into the coalition. But the dispute over the personality and outlook of the minister-to-be for strategic threats has concealed a more important and more interesting change: Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has adopted the positions of Likud Chairman Benjamin Netanyahu.
Whoever doesn't believe this to be the case should read the speeches Olmert and Netanyahu gave in the Knesset when the government was sworn in about six months ago. At the time, Olmert spoke about setting the state's border and evacuating settlements in the West Bank as the lifeline of Zionism, and Netanyahu told him to concentrate on the Iranian threat instead of moving settlers from one hilltop to another.
Now Olmert is carrying out the Netanyahu policy, point by point. The prime minister is sending veiled threats to Iran, burying the convergence plan and allowing accelerated construction in settlements. His social-economic policy, too, was copied from Netanyahu. Who needs a social welfare minister? Let the poor get a job and stop making demands.
Something similar happened to Ariel Sharon when he was stuck without an agenda after the 2003 elections and adopted the proposal of his rival, Amram Mitzna, for a unilateral withdrawal from Gaza. But there is a difference. Mitzna left politics after he lost at the polls, while Netanyahu remains and is steering government policy from the opposition benches. The hands are the hands of Ehud, but the voice is the voice of Bibi.
So what happened? One can argue that the war in Lebanon and the events in Gaza opened Olmert's eyes and made him recognize that his understanding of the threats facing Israel was mistaken. Nonetheless, it appears that political constraints and the prime minister's personality structure were a greater influence.
The strategic threat to Olmert's term of office is not Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his calls to eliminate the "Zionist regime," but rather the potential desertion of 11 MKs from Kadima back to the Likud. Only such a move would translate Netanyahu's advantage in the polls to a change of government. In order to foil him, Olmert executed a double maneuver: He stole his rival's positions - in order to rule out an ideological excuse on the part of the swing MKs in Kadima - and he split the right-wing camp by bringing Lieberman into the government. The emphasis on the Iranian threat had another function as well: to lock up Amir Peretz and prevent his Labor Party from fleeing the coalition. When the state faces existential danger, as Olmert put it, you don't evade responsibility for its fate.
Those who compared Olmert to Netanyahu and Ehud Barak over the last few months do not understand the prime minister. Olmert does not have their intellectual pretension. Perhaps in the depths of his fortified residence he reads books, listens to symphonies and solves mathematical equations. But the Olmert public persona speaks only about soccer, not Winston Churchill or Charles de Gaulle.
Olmert compensates for his inferiority by quoting from encyclopedias with cunning and with emotional intelligence. He is a far better political operator than Barak or Netanyahu, and not only because of his astonishing success in surviving the war and acquiring Lieberman at a good price. Olmert is more disciplined than they are, and even during the abyss of his fall in the polls, he controlled himself and did not get dragged into giving radio interviews on morning programs - a clear sign of political collapse.
Olmert's weak point is his sensitivity to challenges to his masculinity. Netanyahu understood this when he called him "Smolmert" (a combination of the premier's name and the Hebrew word for "left") during the election campaign. Ever since then the prime minister has made an effort to prove his courage and show that he is the distaff of the left. This has led to Olmert's tendency to use force, to get embroiled in a war with Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah and into total chaos on the Palestinian front - and, it appears, to relinquish the positions that he presented to the public when he was elected, and return to being a Likudnik.
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