A New Agenda Is Needed

There are signs that the image of a new era that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's spin doctors are trying to give his upcoming cabinet changes is an empty one.

The "second Olmert government" is to be launched this week and the question is: Will the prime minister act like the platoon sergeant who tells his sweating soldiers longing for clean uniforms that today they will be changing clothes - every soldier will switch his underwear and socks with his neighbor. Or will he have a real message that will blow a fresh breeze into the limp sails of his cabinet?

There are signs that the image of a new era that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's spin doctors are trying to give his upcoming cabinet changes is an empty one.

What new dawn is breaking over Israel if Roni Bar-On or Meir Sheetrit has the Finance portfolio instead of Abraham Hirchson? What new sun will rise if Ruhama Avraham Balila joins the cabinet deliberations? How will the country be saved from its troubles if Ephraim Sneh is replaced by Matan Vilnai or when Haim Ramon gets a room in the Prime Minister's Office as minister for special assignments?

The change that will be felt, for good or bad, with Ehud Barak's taking over the defense portfolio is not to be discounted. But that seems to be the extent of significant change to be expected in the cabinet's style and the atmosphere it projects. This is indeed the point: if there is change, it will take place in the cabinet's personal interactions, in its climate of etiquette, and not necessarily in its policies.

When the office of prime minister fell to Olmert, and more so after he was elected to that post, he appeared to be someone who sincerely wanted to bring about a revolution in the country. The convergence plan he devised was not mere lip service, and his call for a change of the national agenda was not a rhetorical trick. Olmert sounded like someone who had concluded that Israel must disengage from most of the territories and focus on dealing with its domestic problems. There was no reason to doubt that he saw his task as leading Israel toward this change and that he believed he could create a situation in which Israel would indeed be a fun country to live in. The close relationships in Olmert's family, the impact the family members have on each other and the dovish opinions of some of them were circumstantial evidence that his declared direction on the Palestinian issue was no deception.

Then the Second Lebanon War reshuffled the deck. The Qassam fire from Gaza did not help Olmert move ahead with his plan to withdraw from most of the West Bank. For a year he has been almost totally invested in maneuvers to ensure his political survival, which have nothing to do with the needs of the country. His original positions have been so eroded that he has not hesitated to say that his cabinet does not necessarily need an agenda; day-to-day management is enough. The life span of the "second Olmert government" cannot be known. Ehud Barak says that within a few months, by the final Winograd report, he will press for early elections. Even if the newly elected Labor Party leader does not make good on his promise, Olmert would be mistaken to act as if he has all the time in the world. He must imbue his office with a sense of urgency and redefine his government's agenda.

This change is also essential now because the country needs a good shake-up, because the political circumstances - a government that perceives itself as embarking on a new path - make it possible; because the public longs for it, and because Olmert, who has had a hard time since he took office, might come out the better. Ariel Sharon showed leadership when he suddenly changed the national agenda with the disengagement plan; as a result he profited politically and with the public. This is the model that should guide Olmert when his government turns over a new leaf and begins its term's second year.