Analysis / A House Not in Order

Ehud Olmert spent the one-year anniversary of his term as prime minister in Sinai, dining with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, but his mind was elsewhere: While his aides were listening to his remarks at the press conference in Sharm el-Sheikh, Channel 2 television news was reporting on the prime minister's plan to dismiss Defense Minister Amir Peretz. Olmert's hasty denial did not sound convincing; the weekend newspaper headlines will be filled with the rift in the government. Olmert will, for once, be viewed as having taken the initiative in an effort to instill order in his cabinet.

Olmert is looking more and more like a tragic hero, unable to recover from the disaster that befell him in the form of the second Lebanon war. The public is not buying his initiatives, and continues to give him low marks in public opinion polls. The prime minister's responses always appear to be too little too late, and the blows he has absorbed have been too painful. His delayed meeting with Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas convinced no one that Israel was on the verge of a new peace process with the Palestinians. The cease-fire he achieved in the Gaza Strip looked like a sad joke, under the rain of Qassam rockets that continue to fall on Sderot. The kidnapped soldiers are still in enemy hands. Even the meeting with Mubarak was ruined by the undercover military raid in Ramallah.

The domestic situation is no better. Olmert's deputy, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, has made it known that she intends to run against him, borne on the waves of high public opinion ratings. Olmert's impressive achievement in pushing through the national budget in time and without crisis, and in cementing his coalition, have not translated into public support.

Olmert's biggest blow came this week, with the highly publicized arrest of his longtime office manager Shula Zaken in connection with the Tax Authority corruption scandal.

Olmert's political consultants and senior officials say he must make a dramatic move to reverse the trend of the polls, something that will persuade the public that he is acting on behalf of the country, not just for the sake of his own skin. They talk about two scenarios. The first is a face-lift in the cabinet, to include a defense minister with professional qualifications, a justice minister who will fight corruption and a welfare minister to fill the empty seat. The second is either a diplomatic move in the direction of Syria or a regional peace process based on the Saudi initiative. Both scenarios have a price. Olmert has promised to save the justice portfolio for his friend Haim Ramon until after the former minister's trial is over. Talks with the Syrians or the Saudis could bring down his coalition.

Getting rid of Peretz is, at first glance, a sure bet. The defense minister's public standing is even worse than the prime minister's, and according to a survey published Wednesday by pollster Mina Zemach, Olmert's popularity will rise if he boots out Peretz. In retrospect, Peretz's appointment is looking like the prime minister's fatal flaw, his self-destruct mechanism coming into play.