A Cauldron of Poisons

A historian seeking to understand what happened to Ehud Olmert during his first year as prime minister will have to study two of his speeches: his "going to war" speech in the Knesset on July 17, 2006, and his "cauldron of poisons" speech to the Kadima Council last night. A mere eight months separate these two speeches, but those eight months are an eternity. Last summer, he was a war leader. The whole Knesset hung on to his words, silently and respectfully. Yesterday, he was a shadow of himself - battered, bloody, fighting for his political life.

Last night, Olmert spoke over the heads of his colleagues, who are plotting against him, and the media, which has already sealed his fate. He spoke to the people and requested another chance. Perhaps a last chance.

A speech of this genre - personal, emotional, designed to elicit sympathy - can be given only once. The first time, it is political drama. The second time, it is farce. The opinion polls in the coming weeks will show whether Olmert's daring new strategy has paid off. But in an almost terminal situation, he did pretty much the best he could last night. When the house is on fire, you throw whatever you can grab out the window and jump on the first passing wagon. Last night, Olmert jumped; now, he awaits the public's verdict.

In all such speeches, the facts occasionally suffer. Contrary to Olmert's statement, the public does know something about the war's management; Olmert certainly does consult with lawyers and public relations experts; and he certainly does try to find favor in the public's eyes. But he was correct in saying that he works hard, from morning to night. He was correct in saying that he has maintained economic stability. He was correct that under his leadership, Israel has enjoyed broad international support. He is genuinely trying to free Gilad Shalit, and he is truly working tirelessly to deal with the Iranian issue.

Yet while all that is true, we live in an age of image - and last summer's war finished him politically. Thus, unless the Winograd Committee clears him of mismanaging it, he will be forced to resign, despite his vow last night that he intends to remain on the job.