Olmert and the Report / Keeping Up Appearances

The press release issued yesterday by the Winograd Committee in a declared attempt to refute the surge of conflicting speculations regarding its future findings, has merely served to create a whole new deluge of assessments, speculations and commentaries. The most intriguing reference in the announcement was of course the promise of conclusions pertaining to the personal responsibility of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Defense Minister Amir Peretz and then-chief-of-staff Dan Halutz.

What does that mean, exactly? And why do all the other figures involved, from former prime ministers to military commanders, get to walk away unscathed?

Prime Minister Olmert appears to have been very active over the past few days. He has met with Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas, as well as with the Israel Nature and National Parks Protection Authority. Yesterday he also inspected the IDF's Regional Gaza Division.

It would be interesting to know what went through his head as he inspected the site where 19-year-old Gilad Shalit was abducted last June, an event that prepared the grounds for the crisis that begot the second Lebanon war. After all, this was the event that brought about the shelving of the Convergence Plan, throwing Olmert's government into an ongoing battle for survival.

Olmert may be revving the engine, but he is nonetheless in neutral. Until the release of the Winograd report, he will function as prime minister under warning, with or without press releases by the committee.

His political advisors are already doing the math. How many Kadima deserters would it take for Likud Chairman Benjamin Netanyahu to become prime minister of the current Knesset? What are Livni's and Peres' chances of leading an internal coup within Kadima?

Olmert's only chance of pulling off a comeback in terms of approval and popularity is to distance himself from the war and embark on a daring new diplomatic move. He alluded to this Sunday, in his positive reference to the Saudi Initiative. The Riyadh Summit is scheduled to convene before the Winograd Committee releases its report. If it issues a moderate statement sympathetic to Israel's position, it could pave the way to a renewed peace process.

It's just that it's doubtful that the Saudis want to save Olmert's political hide. The Saudis' warming to Israel is rooted rather in fear of Iran, unaffected by power changes in Jerusalem. Another possible hitch lies in the fact that following former prime minister Ariel Sharon's disengagement stunt, the Israeli public is more immune to distractions pertaining to regional political issues.

And so, it is more likely that Olmert will adopt a business-as-usual facade. With luck, the Winograd report will be released after the holidays, allowing him to put on a brave Israeli face in Memorial Day ceremonies