Between Cholera and the Plague

Much has been said and written about the idyllic relationship between Ehud Olmert and Amir Peretz. And indeed, the two arrived at yesterday's cabinet meeting hand in hand, having identical interests and suffering similar pressures. The prime minister and the defense minister, the leaders of the two biggest parties, both need an unequivocal victory in this war to the same extent. They both have the same fear of receiving a grade of "barely satisfactory" on the final exam that has suddenly landed on their heads during their first year of political science studies. Both of them have wives at home who would be happy to hear on the radio that the cabinet had voted against sending Israel Defense Forces soldiers into the inferno.

Nevertheless, there is a significant difference between these two politicians, who will apparently meet, sooner or later, on opposing sides of the ballot box. There are those in their intimate circles who are already wagering that it will be sooner rather than later. The war in the north has put an end to the slight chance left by the conflict in the south for the unilateral convergence plan - the only glue that holds the government together.

The grade given to the defense minister is calculated first and foremost by the relationship between the quantity of rocket launchers and the number of Hezbollah fighters that the IDF destroys, on one hand, and the quantity of missiles that turn the Galilee into a scorched ghost town and the number of civilians and soldiers killed in the war, on the other. The prime minister's grade also, and perhaps primarily, depends on the war's diplomatic outcome and its long-term implications.

Confidants who have spoken with Olmert in the past few days received the impression that he is well aware of the danger that the situation on the ground on the day after a second unilateral withdrawal from Lebanon will be similar to the situation in the territories on the day after the first disengagement from the Gaza Strip. That is to say, instead of a weak secular government with pro-western leanings, we will get an Islamic regime under strong Iranian influence in Lebanon. According to Olmert's own statements, he regards Hezbollah as the object that sprays the missiles, Syria as the pipeline and Iran as the main faucet.

The prime minister entered the cabinet meeting after having been told that an expanded offensive, even if it were to end with a result that could be considered a "victory," might throw the baby out with the bath water. The baby in this case is the Lebanese prime minister, Fouad Siniora. Both the Americans, who were so proud of the democratic process that brought Siniora to power, and Israeli analysts believe that if the IDF expands its military operation to the Litani River and perhaps even beyond, Siniora will not be the only one who will be left crying. They warned that an "achievement" of this kind would lead to the dissolution of the Lebanese government, which is very shaky in any case. According to the constitution, the governing authority would then be put in the hands of President Emile Lahoud, one of the politicians who is closest to Syria and Hezbollah. Another "victory" of this kind and Olmert will lose power completely.

These differences may explain why the "left-wing" Peretz is eager to pursue the military option while the "Likudnik" Olmert wavers over whether to pursue diplomatic moves. From his talks yesterday with German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, Peretz decided that the media should receive the following message: "Israel will not agree to a diplomatic solution that does not ensure stability and quiet for many years." Not a word about Siniora's proposal to deploy the Lebanese Army in the south, backed by an international force. Olmert actually said that this is in fact the original objective of UN Resolution 1559, which Israel and the international community are saying should be implemented. The prime minister even went so far as to describe the proposal as "interesting."

This time, Olmert did not shoot from the hip. Every word of his was not only well thought out, but also coordinated with the American administration. Since the Americans are also coordinating with Siniora, the Lebanese prime minister's proposal did not hit the Israeli prime minister out of the blue. For that same reason, Olmert's response did not surprise Siniora. The Lebanese prime minister also did not fall off his chair when he heard Israel's reservations about the Lebanese government's proposal to forgo a strong international force in favor of an "upgraded" UNIFIL force. Siniora would not only have been surprised, he would have been very disappointed if Olmert had welcomed the compromise proposal worked out between him and Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah. Siniora understands better than anyone else why Nasrallah prefers to have UNIFIL peacekeepers watching Hezbollah rather than an international force with a broad mandate from the UN Security Council. For exactly the same reason, Siniora opposes this suggestion.

The situation assessment given the prime minister before the cabinet session also included Russia and China, which are prepared to fight the Americans and the British to the last drop of Israeli and Lebanese blood. A broad Israeli military offensive that leads to the downfall of the Lebanese government would help the Russians and Chinese bury Resolution 1559, which deals mainly with the Lebanese government's imposition of sovereignty in the south of the country. A Russian-Chinese veto could kill the international force while it is still in the Security Council's womb. Without a determined decision by the international community to send a strong force to Lebanon, the last obstacle to Iran's acquisition of control over Israel's northern neighbor will have been removed. Without Syrian cooperation in the attempt to change the course of events in the region, no power in the world will be able to block the weapons pipeline from Iran to Lebanon. Those smuggling arms from Syria will not have to sweat like their brothers in the Gaza Strip. Their tunnels will be dug by bulldozers manufactured in 2006.

The result of this whole mess is that an incursion deep into Lebanon will leave Israel with a choice between cholera and the plague, between sitting for a prolonged period in fortified positions in the killing fields around the Litani or abandoning the whole of Lebanon to the hands of the war coalition of Hezbollah-Syria-Iran. Olmert's problem was that, at this stage, after more than 100 dead and 3,000 missiles, the decision to refrain from a massive ground forces incursion was also not like the choice between a vacation in Tuscany or a trip to Provence. Its price tag included an agreement in principle to give up the Shaba Farms, which, even if they were formally handed over to Siniora, would be chalked up as a victory for Mr. Nasrallah. And if Olmert abides by his word "to do everything" to bring the abducted soldiers home, he will be forced to hand over Lebanese prisoners to Hezbollah.

Had he chosen this route, Peace Now, which has only now awakened from its summer slumber, would have cheered him on. But according to the latest Peace Index poll, the vast majority wants "victory" - no matter what the cost. Olmert from Kadima and Peretz from Labor have given them what they want.