In a Country of Short Fuses

Adjectives like hotheaded, short-tempered and touchy are tame when it comes to describing the local crowd. And they don't even come close to describing the Palestinians.

Even those who have a hard time finding anything grievously wrong with the way Ehud Olmert has been performing his prime ministerial duties, for the time being, cannot ignore a number of comic moments that this man has been providing us with, unintentionally. These moments crop up mainly when Olmert, who has been portrayed for years (in interviews and the media, at least) as one of the most crotchety, irritable, bad-tempered politicians in these parts, tries, in his new incarnation as a national leader, to use the "Arik charm" on the people he meets - especially guests and foreign hosts. In this respect, his recent visits to Washington and Cairo provided some unforgettable scenes of fawning and overfriendliness that wouldn't have shamed comedian Louis de Funes in either of his two personas (in the other, he goes into fits of rage).

By now, we are used to seeing our leaders ingratiating themselves during their first meetings with foreign leaders, usually as a "Jewish" substitute for real foreign policy (think of Menachem Begin, all agog, comparing Jimmy Carter to his idol and mentor, Ze'ev Jabotinsky; or Benjamin Netanyahu's delighted cries of, "I've found a friend," at his meeting with Yasser Arafat).

But the way Olmert buttered up U.S. President George Bush and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak beats anything we've seen yet. Mr. Sour Pickle really got around to practicing his nice-guy tactics, which are cultivated mainly for export - gently escorting his interlocutor by the elbow, smiling as if he were asking for a dance, showering the person with compliments that would even make a saltshaker blush.

Not that there's anything wrong with nice manners. But in Olmert's case, the comedy was in the starkness of the contrast, in the discrepancy between this show of ultra-niceness and the way he, his government, his policies and, need we say, Israel itself normally come across. Adjectives like hotheaded, short-tempered and touchy are tame when it comes to describing the local crowd. And they don't even come close to describing the Palestinians.

Only a few weeks have passed since the elections - the only period in which everyone puts on a show of being nice, or at least tries to shut up, in keeping with "campaign discipline" (imposed by campaigners who are as surly as they come). But all the masks have come off already, and fuses are blowing.

Take Avi Dichter, for example. Who would believe that this pleasant looking fellow, who hardly said a word throughout the campaign, would turn into a hotheaded minister spewing threats in every direction and recommending that Israel reoccupy parts of the Gaza Strip and "turn Beit Hanun into a ghost town"?

Or Roni Bar-On - a palsy-walsy Jerusalem lawyer whose sole "claim to fame" until now was getting mixed up in the Hebron/Bar-On scandal, possibly by no fault of his own, and who has somehow turned himself into Kadima personified, second only to Olmert. Prior to sitting down in the interior minister's chair, he managed to convey the impression - again, maybe it was strict campaign discipline - that he and "his movement" were bringing with them a new spirit, moderate and relatively mild-tempered, that would tone down the discord in our region.

But as soon as he became a minister, the smiles disappeared, the fuses started popping and the fangs came out. As if the man had gone back to the bleachers of the Jerusalem Betar soccer team, where he started out. "I make the rules in Jerusalem. I am the sovereign leader," he hissed at Hamas and Mohammed Abu Tir. "I can revoke Abu Tir's citizenship. I can drag him into court."

In short, he's no Mr. Nice Guy either. And what can we say about Amir Peretz, who is looking very much like Shaul Mofaz's ideological heir right now?

But how can we complain about elected public officials and ministers when they are the authentic voices of this temperamental nation? We live in a country where even the electricity supply hangs by a thread, where the switch is flipped by "overuse," or maybe by the short fuse of the monopoly's employees and managers - nobody knows for sure. We live in a country where giving someone a look or signaling with your headlights could cost you your life (that was the pretext for two of the five murders that took place last weekend).

We live in a country where "defense policy" means trigger-happy soldiers and a policy of targeted hits and revenge that would freak out even Tony Soprano. We live in a country where an airport or the water supply could be shut down because someone on the board had a temper tantrum.

In a country like this, our elected public officials are shining examples of self-discipline and restraint. At least they don't shoot us (not the Jews, anyway). And our prime minister, let it be said to his credit, doesn't bite his guests. He even smiles at them - for the time being.