Who Cares About the Public?

Despite zero popular support, Ehud Olmert is one of the strongest prime ministers in the country's history.

It has been said so often that "Ehud Olmert is a weak prime minister who is occupied with survival" that it has become a cliche that no longer needs to be proved. However, it deserves to be reconsidered, because the farther the Second Lebanon War recedes into the past, the more Olmert is emerging as one of the strongest prime ministers in this country's history. Not because of his potent charisma or sweeping vision, but thanks to his understanding and correct use of the political alignment.

Olmert is unpopular. His rate of support in the polls is extraordinarily low. But his unpopularity is not preventing him from running the country as he sees fit. It is difficult to pinpoint a decision that the prime minister made, or did not make, while under the influence of public opinion. He dared to talk to Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) about Jerusalem and the refugees, and he released hundreds of Palestinian prisoners while soldier Gilad Shalit is still in captivity. And the world kept turning. He reacted to the volley of Qassam rockets from Gaza that greeted the opening of the new school year in Sderot by appointing an inter-ministerial committee to examine how to exact a price from the residents of the Gaza Strip. The protest by the bombarded south against "governmental neglect" is not shaking the very foundations of the government. The appointment of Olmert's good friends Roni Bar-On and Haim Ramon to key posts in the cabinet passed uneventfully. He is in the good graces of world leaders, who are friendly to him.

The conclusion to be drawn from this state of affairs is that the attitude of the Israeli public is not so important between elections, particularly if the economy is flourishing and there is no terrorism in the big cities. Also it emerges that previous premiers' addiction to polls, speeches and radio interviews was unnecessary and only harmful to them. Olmert is not even trying to get the public to like him. He understands that there is no chance of this, at least not until he surprises everyone with a political or security achievement. He even canceled the traditional Rosh Hashanah media interviews (maybe for fear that he will be called upon to disclose details of the negotiations he is conducting with the Palestinians).

He is realizing the philosophical ideal of the "government of representatives": From his point of view, there are approximately 140 people in the country on whom his fate depends, and he needs to influence only them. These include the members of the Knesset plus a few cabinet ministers who are not MKs, political sages such as Rabbi Ovadia Yosef and Amos Oz, and influential columnists. All the others, as has been proved in the last year, are not really relevant.

Three victories

This week Olmert chalked up three victories over his rivals. The most important was that the Winograd Committee, which is investigating the Second Lebanon War, gave in and informed the High Court of Justice that it would send warning letters to individuals liable to be harmed by its findings. Just a month ago the committee trashed Olmert's request to peruse the full testimonies; now it will have to transmit to him and the others who will likely get warning letters crates of evidence and allow them to respond to the allegations against them.

At this rate, the committee will be transformed from a tool to investigate a vital and urgent public issue into a team of historians examining an old affair. Together with the evaporation of the threat posed by the Winograd Committee, which was the greatest danger to his government, Olmert also benefited from the dismissal of the accountant general, Yaron Zelekha, and perhaps also from the decision by Sderot mayor Eli Moyal - one of the premier's most vocal critics - to suspend himself while he is under investigation by the police on breach of trust suspicions.

Yet Olmert does not see the picture this way. Not at all. He feels persecuted and embattled in the face of the critical media and the treacherous politicians. He reads papers, but sees the journalists as irresponsible, as being able to write whatever they please without paying any price for their mistakes. In the rare instances in which Olmert takes journalists' questions, such as during the visit by the chancellor of Austria this week, he does not restrain himself. He unfailingly comes out with a sarcastic remark about exaggerated headlines or about the naive politicians who fall victim to the enticements of publicity and microphones.

The testimonies of the cabinet ministers to the Winograd Committee came as a disappointment to Olmert. A year after the war and he still finds it difficult to understand how the group that said it supported all his decisions unanimously and functioned mainly as a chorus, said the opposite before the committee. He has the minutes of cabinet and security cabinet meetings in which he has used a colored marker to show how all those who opposed the war and its course afterward, spoke in their favor in real time. The experienced Olmert cannot be suspected of political naivete. He knows that in politics it's the winning team that is popular. But from conversations with confidants in the past few months, it appears that he was personally offended by the behavior of the ministers.

The criticism that was voiced this week by members of Kadima about his political moves also angered the prime minister. One might think that the existence of an active opposition helps him in the negotiations with Abu Mazen: He can claim that there is a limit to the concessions he can make. If everything goes by without a political fuss, the Palestinians will demand more. But Olmert, as was noted in this space last week, wants to maintain silence until he achieves a fait accompli, or at least until further progress is made in the talks. Accordingly, he has quickly called his critics to order and benefited from the fact that the media, for the most part, has continued to ignore the political talks and has taken a greater interest in the possibility that Israel will cut off the power supply to Gaza.