Don't Envy the Winner

Advancing negotiations with the Palestinians for a two-state solution seems like an obvious choice that would place Kadima as the party of peace, in contrast to Likud, and would win the new prime minister international support.

The immediate political goal of the winner of the Kadima primary must be to form a coalition and rapidly take charge of the new government, in an effort to get the party and its leader firmly in place ahead of the race between Kadima (and ideally Labor, in a unified bloc) and Likud in the next general election. This cannot be done just by putting out fires, managing crises and searching for opportunities. For this, you need a strategy.

The basis of every successful strategy - whether in the military, politics or the business world - is focusing on the essential and concentrating one's efforts. All leaders need a central task with which they are identified, according to which they prioritize their timetable and for which they win public and international support. The message must be simple, understandable and consistent, and it must present a solution to an important national problem.

New prime ministers are at risk of two immediate dangers. One is their tendency to get involved in the nonsense that steals the energy they need as well as political power. That's what happened to Ehud Barak with the transportation of a turbine superheater on Shabbat, which destabilized his coalition, and to Benjamin Netanyahu in his struggle against the "old elites," which set strong forces against him.

The second danger is getting entangled in an unnecessary security crisis that distracts the public from the central problem. That's what happened to Netanyahu with the opening of the Western Wall tunnel in Jerusalem and to Ehud Olmert during the Second Lebanon War. In these cases, the new leader got caught up in a mess because he wanted to show that he was strong and in control, but the events actually ended up exposing his weakness.

Whoever succeeds Olmert will need to beware of such traps, and realize that his or her situation is worse than Olmert's, partly because the new leader will not have a mandate from the people - only from the Kadima voters. And the public will be quick to remind the new prime minister of this at the first sign of a crisis. In addition, the new prime minister will have no time. A new leader needs about a year to formulate a strategy and practical policy. But whoever steps up to the plate in the middle of the game won't have a lot of opportunities to fix mistakes, so the new prime minister will have to be quick at producing a strategy distinguishing the latest incumbent from Olmert, and hope to hold on until the general election.

There are also threatening factors outside the country. America is paralyzed as it awaits a new president, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is liable to leave his post in January, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah wants revenge, and the global recession looms over everything. Of course, one must also watch out for an unexpected crisis, like a violent conflict between settlers and Palestinians in the West Bank that could drag Israel into an international quagmire and threaten domestic stability. The pieces seem to be falling into place for just such a conflagration, or perhaps a clash between settlers and soldiers.

On what will Olmert's heir be able to focus? Advancing negotiations with the Palestinians for a two-state solution seems like an obvious choice that would place Kadima as the party of peace, in contrast to Likud, and would win the new prime minister international support. But serious negotiations with the Palestinian Authority will endanger the coalition because of Shas, and in any case, the public doesn't believe that such a deal is possible.

Negotiations with Syria have the support of the security establishment and involve strategic benefits for Israel, which is trying to put some distance between Syrian President Bashar Assad and his alliance with Iran. The problem is that getting the talks to the next level ahead of a deal requires American intervention; the outgoing administration isn't interested, and the incoming one will need some time to formulate a policy.

Preparing the country to face the Iranian threat will recall heroic memories from the 1950s, strengthen the prime minister's image as a leader who's good on security, and take away Netanyahu's best card in the general election. But the risk here is great. The public will start expecting a preemptive war against Iran to keep it from developing nuclear weapons. This would require American support, which does not currently exist, but failing to follow through would turn the prime minister into a pathetic figure.

If the new prime minister initiates a conflict with the settlers, as Ariel Sharon did, that would strengthen Kadima in the eyes of centrist voters but would create a deep internal rift, and it's doubtful that Olmert's successor will have the public standing or political ability to make such a move.

Going to elections hastily, before the leadership of Olmert's heir gets imprinted onto the public consciousness, would be political suicide. An attempt to freeze everything, conduct futile political negotiations and deal with domestic matters like "government reform" or "the fight on corruption" until the external circumstances change will turn the prime minister into a minor player just passing time on the seat of power, just as Olmert has been depicted since the Second Lebanon War.

Whoever succeeds Olmert will therefore have to choose among less than stellar options, putting the new leader to a complex test at a time when the public wants to find its way out of the doldrums of the past two years, but does not believe in the political system. One can only conclude that there is no reason to be jealous of the winner.