Olmert in Autumn

In the autumn of his rule, Olmert is fulfilling what he promised: "to manage the country without an agenda.' Upon his return from Washington, however, he will have to explain to the public where we go from here.

The results of Friday's Haaretz survey indicate a growing and worrisome rift between Israel's citizens and the political system that is supposed to represent them. The prime minister and defense minister have lost the public's confidence, while the expansion of the coalition implants the two more firmly in their seats. One can say that the distaste for the government of Ehud Olmert and Amir Peretz stems not only from the results of the war in Lebanon, but also from a lack of hope for the future.

In the autumn of his rule, Olmert is fulfilling what he promised: "to manage the country without an agenda." His problem is that in the absence of leadership, even this management slips from the hands of the prime minister, and everyone does as he pleases. The head of the IDF Southern Command, Major General Yoav Galant, led him into an imbroglio in Gaza. Yesterday's fatal shelling in Beit Hanun is further evidence of the political echelon's problematic control of the army.

The state comptroller, a glutton for politicians, is dominating the headlines. The ultra-Orthodox and secular sectors are renewing their fighting. Avigdor Lieberman is adding fuel to the bonfire of relations with Israel's Arabs. The abducted soldiers are still in enemy captivity. The breakdown of systems exposed in the IDF during the summer has also become evident in the police and State Prosecutor's Office in connection with Haim Ramon's trial.

The prime minister is weighing his options. Tzipi Livni advises him to conduct negotiations with Mahmoud Abbas, "bypassing" Hamas en route to a final-status accord. Shimon Peres is resurrecting the Jordanian option via the "Valley of Peace." Peretz is enthusiastic about the Syrian channel. Lieberman suggests putting the diplomatic arena aside to focus instead on changing the system of government. Benjamin Netanyahu seeks national mobilization against Iran.

Olmert listens to them and remains unmoved. He still believes in evacuating settlements from the West Bank and demarcating a new border on the hills. But his hasty abandonment of the convergence plan left him without anything. The diplomatic channels are blocked. In the prime minister's eyes, Bashar Assad is a liar, Abu Mazen is weak, and Hamas is hostile. Fouad Siniora refuses to meet with Olmert, and, in any case, peace with Lebanon does not interest the public. A public confrontation with "the existential threat" Iran, as a substitute for a diplomatic process, would only intensify national anxiety, and would not generate any hope.

Ariel Sharon faced the same type of distress in the summer of 2003: diplomatic collapse, a plunge in opinion polls, and "investigations." And then he found himself an agenda in the exodus from Gaza, and played this card. The fact that he had previously opposed this idea did not change a thing in his eyes. The disengagement cost Sharon some political struggles that were not simple, but everyone clearly knew who was leading the state and in which direction. The media lined up with him, the investigations were tossed to the trash, and if he had not lost consciousness, he would have won a third term.

Now the time has come for Olmert to find himself a direction. If he continues with survival games and disputes with the state comptroller, he will be expelled from office as a fleeting episode. If the paralysis at the top continues, the prime minister will long for the 20 percent of support he received in the latest survey.

In his recent speeches, Olmert has raised several banners: establishing a constitution, revising the system of government, rehabilitating the North, signing an accord with the Palestinians, exercising deployment vis-a-vis Iran, making peace with Lebanon, confronting the struggle against Hamas, tackling poverty. All of them are fine and worthy objectives, but now he must choose. A prime minister generally has one opportunity in each term to set a central goal and work to advance it. It is impossible to march on five parallel paths.

Next week, Olmert will hear from George Bush about the American administration's aspirations for the two remaining years of the president's term, and whether he will invest efforts in Middle East diplomacy. An understanding of the American position is vital for the prime minister's situation assessment; but upon his return from Washington, Olmert will have to explain to the public where we go from here.