Olmert's secret weapon
In his wildest dreams, the prime minister never expected that his bitter enemy Netanyahu would turn out to be his lifesaver with a slip of the tongue during a live broadcast.
If Prime Minister Ehud Olmert were able to speak freely, he would deliver a short monologue, more or less along these lines: "Didn't I tell you so? You didn't believe me, but I told you after the first Winograd report that only someone who has failed can learn lessons. Nu, have I or haven't I learned? According to the reports in the foreign media, have we succeeded or haven't we? Going by what foreign sources are saying, did we act properly in the security arena or not?"
Olmert is continuing to remain silent. His silence on the Syrian issue will continue for quite a long time. One of the favorite lines in former prime minister Ariel Sharon's "ranch forum" was: "What does the Jewish people love? Quiet - and killing Arabs." Olmert is implementing much of this profound insight, religiously. If he had imitated Sharon in a number of other areas, at an earlier stage in his tenure, it is possible that he would not have ended up where he is today. But all of that is behind us. Today Olmert's people are walking a tightrope between the restrictions of the censor and their natural and understandable desire to speak in praise of the boss.
Olmert is still not a prime minister who is liked or loved - far from it, say the circles closest to him, but thank God, he is no longer tantamount to a catastrophe. The effect of the war is beginning to fade. People are starting to understand that after the failure of the summer of 2006, the system is returning to proper functioning. The prevailing sense is that the trio of Olmert-Defense Minister Ehud Barak-Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi is running things properly, that there is an experienced and responsible hand on the steering wheel. Olmert's people are hoping that as people internalize this message, he will be rehabilitated and enjoy a tail wind in advance of this fall's peace conference in Washington.
The publication of the final Winograd Committee report, people close to Olmert are whispering, is being delayed and when it does come out next spring, nearly two years after the war, it will be in the headlines for a day or two and fade away. Anyway, they say, it's not worth predicting what will be in the report. Only a few weeks ago, at the committee's request, it received a detailed report on the implementation of all the lessons learned in the wake of the Second Lebanon War. The report is comprised of hundreds of pages of transcripts from government, cabinet and ministerial committee meetings. A tremendous amount of work has been done here. The committee will not be able to ignore this.
In the political area as well, say Olmert's close associates, things are going well: Labor MK Ami Ayalon, one of the best Shin Bet security service heads ever, will soon be joining the government. True, he did say Olmert must resign, but so what? He said it - and he's joining the government. Barak also said it, and joined. And Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni said it, and stayed. Olmert is truly a political paradox: The more people there are who say that he "must resign," the stronger he gets, with the direct help of those who have called upon him to resign.
What message is this sending to the political system? They answer their own question: He isn't about to evaporate tomorrow morning. If to this are added the Dahaf public opinion poll that was published this week in Yedioth Ahronoth, which shows a significant increase in support for the prime minister, and Olmert's joint press conference with Minister of Strategic Affairs Avigdor Lieberman for the Russian-language press, at which Lieberman said that "this government has done more for the world than any other government" - then the situation is not bad at all.
That monologue was delivered in the hours before opposition leader Likud MK Benjamin (Bibi) Netanyahu's appearance on Channel 1's nightly news program on on Wednesday. The phrase "a good political week for Olmert" became an understatement. In his wildest dreams Olmert did not expect this reinforcement from the artillery. Not long ago it was written in these pages, in a similar context, that Bibi is Olmert's "lifesaving drug." On Wednesday evening Netanyahu proved that his place in Olmert's health basket - and indirectly also in Barak's - is ensured. He will always be enlisted to help, when needed and also when not.
At the critical moment, he will always kick over the bucket that is full of himself and go back to zero. This is what happened now and also, for example, on the eve of the Likud primaries when he shoved MK Silvan Shalom out of the race and raised Moshe Feiglin to a national level.
But the present incident is far worse. Of all people, the security-minded Netanyahu, a person who knows something about state secrets, has pushed himself into a corner with MK Zahava Gal-On of Meretz. He broke the silence that the public admires, came out looking like someone who wants to enjoy a piece of the glory (according to foreign sources), and once again sent out the sort of hysterical vibes of someone looking on despairingly as Olmert and (indirectly) Barak win points, while he, poor thing, remains outside.
The game of Knesset seats that Netanyahu, Olmert and Barak are playing is a zero-sum game: When one goes up, another goes down. When two go up, the third plummets. Netanyahu read, heard, panicked and ran to the TV studio he knows so well from another incident at the start of the 1990s. Poor Bibi.
And nevertheless, the euphoria that reigned this week at the Prime Minister's Bureau is a bit exaggerated and a bit premature. There is no one who knows as well as Olmert that what goes up also comes down, and that the real problems are still ahead of him in all their acuteness: The Winograd report will be submitted eventually and Ehud Barak's commitment to take action in its wake is still in force. In a closed conversation, Barak said this week that when the report is submitted, he will keep his word and act to bring about early elections, apparently at the beginning of 2009.
Counting the days
The police investigations against Olmert are well under way, the political problems in Kadima and in the coalition in the context of the diplomatic process will only get worse, and this is even before Syria has reacted. The story with Syria hasn't ended yet. Tomorrow or the day after we are liable, heaven forfend, to find ourselves with a plane that is blown up or a demolished embassy. What is the public going to think then and how will "the action-that-never-happened" look? In any case, by then Netanyahu will already be bound to the support and the blessings he has given the prime minister, at the very least.
On Sunday afternoon, Kadima MK Avigdor Itzchaky went into a restaurant in North Tel Aviv. Minister- designate Ami Ayalon was eating lunch there. Itzchaky strode straight over to Ayalon's table. "If there is any individual who has destroyed my faith in politics, it's you," said Itzchaky to Ayalon. Ayalon's steak stuck in his throat. He muttered something about how life is complex, but Itzchaky refused to hear: "You're making a big mistake," he said to Ayalon, and walked away in frustration. Everyone speaks from the place where it hurts them most: More than Itzchaky is regretting Ayalon's trampled dignity, he is tortured by the rejoicing that has spread through Olmert's camp in the wake of Ayalon joining the government.
Itzchaky is about to resign from the Knesset. Not because of Ayalon, because of Olmert. Because Olmert is still prime minister. Last spring, after the interim Winograd report, Itzchaky was the main axis of the failed putsch attempt against the prime minister. When at the crucial moment he discovered that he was alone, he resigned from the position of Knesset faction chairman and since then he has been preparing himself for Olmert's fall. Today he understands that the prime minister is not going anywhere in the foreseeable future.
"Olmert appears stable," he says, "mainly because there is no one who is threatening him, neither from within nor from without. There isn't anyone who is saying to him: 'Your time has come.' Even if [Transportation and Road Safety Minister Shaul] Mofaz and Livni are squirming in their chairs in discomfort, it doesn't matter. And the business with Syria is also giving him a boost - there is no doubt about that."
Itzchaky's interpretation of the political situation will be music to Olmert's ears, no less than the resignation itself. "Even Barak can't bring about elections today," he adds. "If Labor resigns, Lieberman's commitment to the coalition and that of Shas will increase. United Torah Judaism will support it from the outside and Olmert will carry on." In general, the Kadima MK says, "the problem isn't Olmert, but rather the system. Everything is screwed up here. Until someone comes along who sweeps everyone up behind him - and I don't see anyone like that, certainly not Barak and Bibi - the situation will not change."
Why isn't Itzchaky waiting for the complete Winograd report - maybe Olmert will go then? "You have to be kidding. If that happens in April (2008) I will be surprised. In the end, politics is built on interests, and that's a pity," says the man who is devoid of interests. "If Shas and Lieberman have an interest in staying, nothing is going to help. Yvet [Lieberman] extorts something each time and stays on. The immigrant absorption system has never partied the way it is partying nowadays. The immigrants' organizations have never been so wealthy, and why? Because of Stas [Misezhnikov, the MK from Yisrael Beiteinu who heads the Knesset Finance Committee] and Yvet [Lieberman]."
You sound quite disappointed, even a bit burned out, I say to him. "Politically I am definitely extinguished," Itzchaky acknowledges, "but in every other way I am really flourishing."
The holiday interviews with the prime minister, which had tremendous potential, gave way to more relaxed interviews, devoid of headlines, with the new President Shimon Peres. Nevertheless, even with Peres there was a headline hiding. This is what he said in an interview to Rogel Alpher in the Maariv: "Don't forget, I have never had less than 45 Knesset seats. Nearly half the nation gave me support." It is worth reading this sentence again. Because these few words, so detached from reality, reflect Shimon Peres and his inner world more than any learned biography that has been written about him.
First of all, the dry facts: Peres led his party in elections five times. In 1977 in the first turnaround in which Labor's historic rival Herut (precursor of the Likud) led by Menachem Begin won an election, the Alignment (precursor of today's Labor Party) plummeted under his leadership from 51 Knesset seats to 32. In 1981 he took off again and raked in 47 seats. In 1984 Labor, headed by Peres again, brought in a seemly result of 44 seats. After that the decline began: 39 seats in the 1988 elections, 34 in 1996. That is to say, in four out of five elections, Peres brought in less than 45 Knesset seats. According to the distribution of the seats in the Knesset (a total of 120), on average, he received the support of one-third of the nation.
So why does Peres invent a world of his own? People who really know him were not surprised. Even if someone were to put the results of his past five election campaigns on his desk, Peres would not admit that he was mistaken. He would explain why: For example, Peres would argue, in 1977 the failure should not be attributed to him, but rather to Yitzhak Rabin, who resigned on the eve of the elections because of the affair of his wife's U.S. bank account. And in the 1988 elections, the day before the polling stations opened, he had 45 seats in the public opinion polls. They shrank because of the attack on the bus in Jericho. And in 1996 there were direct elections for prime minister and everyone knows that there was cheating. And so forth.
Peres has an election-result world of his own and a personal scale of calculations in accordance with which he has conducted himself all these years and with which he conducts a dialogue. This is what has helped him survive all the struggles, the failures and the defeats. He has convinced himself that he has never lost and even if he did, that he was still victorious.
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