In the Short Time Remaining

What took Benjamin Netanyahu about three years and Ehud Barak about a year, took Ehud Olmert only 100 days.

The spectacle is already so familiar as to be painful, or boring - like the wars, like the protest movements, like the inquiry committees: Another young/new prime minister begins to lose his head and go into decline, going from mistake to mistake as he loses both his legitimacy and his judgment on his way to a premature downfall, to the sound of angry voices and the revelry of those rejoicing in his misfortune.

What took Benjamin Netanyahu about three years and Ehud Barak about a year, took Ehud Olmert only 100 days. He was still in the grace period, and had not yet even taken off when he began his tailspin - thereby teaching us about the increasingly short shelf life of Israeli prime ministers.

From this perspective, the five-year interlude of Ariel Sharon's government already looks like the Victorian era in comparison with his predecessors and successors. His term is a testimony to the special genius of a master manipulator, whose very survival in power may have been his sole substantial achievement.

It appears that Sharon's well-known suspiciousness - that of someone who was once bitten, twice shy, who was scarred by past experience - also stemmed from the skills of the Israel Defense Forces. Perhaps he sensed that this totem must be sanctified, but that we should not rush to put it to the test. For that reason, the Israeli people absorbed hundreds of terror attacks during Sharon's term, as well as social gaps and corruption aplenty. But the holy of holies, the definer of identity, was unharmed: the feeling of being a winner, which is entirely dependent on military potential, without necessarily utilizing it ("restraint is power").

Olmert and Amir Peretz did not understand this, and they did what Sharon would not have done. In their innocence, they thought that in order to feel like winners, it is necessary to win a war. That was a big mistake.

Military failures are never a reason to celebrate. Nonetheless, there is something almost terrifying about the influence that every blunder in the military arena - and only in the military arena - has on what is known as the Israeli "national soul." Our self-definition is so dependent on military might that the absence of an unequivocal victory, even in situations that are very far from constituting existential threats (as in the last war, which ultimately ended with not insignificant diplomatic gains), is considered an apocalyptic disaster, causing a chain reaction of disproportionate despair, anger, hysteria and a feeling of collapse.

Corruption could be taking root everywhere and poverty could be spreading like leprosy, but woe to the leader in whose time a military failure occurs: The entire country will be filled with prophets who foresaw the darkness, with professional admonishers who announce that the very foundations of Zionism have trembled. And they will not stop with a demand that the army's flaws be fixed and its commanders take responsibility, but will rather begin a national soul-searching, replete with collective mortification, Holocaust-like trauma, revolutionary criticism and expectations that government leaders will be stripped of power, out of a messianic longing for a commission of inquiry that will "examine" what is already known and for some kind of redemption from the sewers.

And as for Olmert, even without the war, it is doubtful that he would have carved a niche for himself as the most heartwarming and honest prime minister we have ever known. Put it this way: In Hollywood, they might have put him in the role of the shyster - the small-time lawyer who stops at nothing, like Walter Matthau in a few of his movies. Olmert would play a man of hasty words, a short fuse and petty machinations, skipping from one legal loophole to another, an expert in sarcastic arguments and in holding his rivals responsible. That is what he is, and all the tricks and shticks in the arsenal of the Adlers and the other image consultants will not manage to transform Olmert to something other than what he is. Moreover, the entire conduct of this war seemed to be a kind of extension of his character and demeanor.

Olmert's fate, therefore, seems to be decided, and with more brutality than that of his predecessors. If he falls from power now, as a result of the waves of protest, Olmert and "his party" will become one of the more grotesque footnotes of Israeli political history. His sole, slim chance of salvation lies in running forward and in rising above his "Olmertness." For instance, the prime minister could show courage in advancing the vision of dividing the land: He could hold negotiations and make peace deals - including with Syria and Hamas - and take advantage of the unique political conjunction that exists today.

Despite the atmosphere of eternal annexationist putsch with which the settlers threaten every "Israeli" prime minister - this time on the back of the reservists' protest - Olmert still has a clear mandate from the voters for doing so. But is the man who has thus far not even bothered to meet with Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas, and who made it clear this week that he prefers to keep the Golan Heights without peace, capable of rising to that level? Or to any level?

Tell him, Adler: If spin is needed, it is best if the spin is effective. If Olmert's time is limited and he is destined to be a footnote, at least let him be mentioned in the footnote as someone who tried to make peace, and not as someone who failed in waging war.