To Hell With Charisma

Skilled at the political give and take with its cynical compromises, Olmert is a quick study of the changing reality and, most importantly, lacking the burden of charisma.

If there was a watershed historic moment during Ehud Olmert's launching at the White House, it was that, for the first time in the history of the country, we finally have a prime minister who not only isn't shorter than his host by half a meter, as were most of his predecessors, but is even taller than the American president by a centimeter or two. Who says there isn't any progress between visits by the Israeli prime minister to Washington?

Another great leap forward was the seeming role reversal between the host and his guest: For the first time, an Israeli leader has proposed withdrawal from the territories while his host has not displayed any great enthusiasm for it. That's an apparent reversal, at least compared to the horrified stuttering of past Israeli leaders when they were asked by American presidents - like Lyndon Johnson - to describe what they envisioned as Israel's borders. But make no mistake: Fundamentally, it is the same minuet that has been going on for the last 40 years, in which the success of the visit was measured by the length of the postponement or time-out we achieve with regard to any direct and immediate negotiations with our neighbors over the future of the territories.

Like the same villager from Chelm who only looked for the coin under the streetlamp, it is easier for us not to agree with the Americans than to agree with the Palestinians. The climate is more comfortable, the negotiating atmosphere is more pleasant in Washington than in Ramallah; Condoleezza Rice's perfume is more fragrant than the aftershave worn by Abu Mazen's people. And after the trauma of Camp David and the talks with the impossible Yasser Arafat, that trend has only been strengthened: Enough, we're fed up with this region. We want to disengage, to converge. But the world and even the Americans still insist for some reason that we and the Palestinians are on the same continent, and even the same territory, and it would be best if we work things out.

True, the circumstances are difficult, but Israel has improved to the point of genius the art of "preparing the conditions for negotiations without preconditions." For four decades, this explains why the groundwork was not prepared for a real dialogue, why it must wait until it is proven than there is nobody to talk to, or until we finish mashing the one who regardless there's no point in talking to, or until another partner steps up (who isn't anyone to write home about), or until we squeeze what we can out of the latest super idea: inventing the Village Leagues, crowning Gemayel in Lebanon, creating Hezbollah, missing out on Abu Mazen, weakening the Palestinian Authority, strengthening Hamas, demanding democracy and getting theocratic fundamentalism.

Despite all the alchemy that blows up in our faces time and again, Israel still insists on a moldy perfectionism and an "all or nothing" approach. Either there is an "overall agreement" within two days that will put a final, messianic end to the conflict at all its layers, or there's "no partner" and that's it: no dialogue, not even talk.

This binary approach has mostly been promoted by the sort of leaders considered "charismatic": those "good and brilliant" fellows, mostly from the army, like Ehud Barak or Ariel Sharon, who tended to see everything in black and white, with an in-one-go approach.

Olmert appeared in the role of the prime minister from somewhere else, for better or for worse: gray, civilian, flexible and independent of mind, skilled at the political give and take with its cynical compromises, a quick study of the changing reality, and most importantly, lacking the burden of charisma, and the grand expectations it demands of him, the hubris and its punishment.

It could, of course, end in a fiasco, but it could also work, as in the case of the Australian prime minister, John Howard, a sour and gray man, lacking any charisma or special integrity, who was elected to four terms in office each time with a greater margin, and Australia still exists.

Only the future will prove if Olmert is, in his own way, an outstanding leader: Will he recognize the shades of gray in reality? Will he understand the meaning of pragmatic compromises, which include, for example, talking with Hamas? Will he look reality in the eye, and say to hell with charisma? It is not clear if he is the right man in the right place, but it will be interesting to try this new thing, a flesh and blood leader, without having any great expectations of him.