Olmert Must Count Our Votes

Just when Olmert finally has a chance to regain the trust he lost over the Second Lebanon War, he decides to clam up.

The cryptic references in the media to the recent incident in Syria are not that hard to decipher. If my interpretation of what has been said about the alleged aerial incursion by Israeli jets into Syrian territory last Thursday is correct, then Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's consultants must be pulling their hair out in sheer frustration over his silence.

Just when Olmert finally has a chance to regain the trust he lost over the Second Lebanon War, he decides to clam up. Now he has been persuaded (or forced) to cancel his traditional Rosh Hashanah interviews, in which he just might have turned the tide of his diminishing popularity.

Take, for example, Roni Daniel's flowery report on the incident. On Friday, the Channel 2 military correspondent attempted to tell the story - hushed up by the Israel Defense Forces Censor - by quoting a passage Israel's first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, read to the Knesset plenum in 1956. The words were written by Nathan Alterman in the wake of reports of a covert IDF acquisition.

It is a night unbeknownst and festive / Remembered from across the frontiers of time / Blessed are the people / whose flaws friends and foes can behold / For its finest and daring doings go untold / Beneath the cloak of darkness.

I imagine Olmert would have liked to quote Alterman during his holiday interviews. He probably identifies with the words, especially those about visible flaws as opposed to untold doings. For a prime minister, there is nothing better than a successful military operation - whether real or fictitious - to wear as a wreath of laurels.

The Israeli version of Sparta needs but military victories to unite around its leaders, even if they perform miserably in all other areas. To his great disappointment, however, Olmert cannot follow Ben-Gurion's example just yet. He cannot publicly extol nocturnal exploits, nor does he have poets to do so for him. Olmert must keep silent, at least for now.

Today would have been the first day of his marathon holiday interview session. For three days straight, Olmert was scheduled to receive representatives from 25 different local media outlets. Last Wednesday, however, the Prime Minister's Bureau announced that, in a break with tradition, the prime minister would not be giving any interviews.

Maybe Olmert already knew what was going to happen in Syria the following day, and realized the last thing he needed was prying questions about the exact nature of the Israel Air Force presence in Syrian airspace, or why IDF Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi appeared so exuberant about the whole thing.

From Olmert's point of view, silence is necessary to lower Israel's profile and allow the Syrians to save some face. Now is not the time for interviews. Maybe next holiday season, after things settle down. It's hard to imagine Olmert passing up the opportunity then.

Or perhaps there was no connection between the Syrian incident and the decision to can the interviews. After all, Olmert has enough reason as it is to stay silent. Maybe he doesn't want to waste three precious days repeating the same answers, beginning with Channel 2 and ending with Vesty and Israel's other leading Russian-language papers.

Perhaps Olmert is eager to avoid a repetition of the incident in which Channel One's Haim Yavin echoed accusations about Olmert voiced by State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss and the Finance Ministry accountant-general, Yaron Zelekha. Perhaps this year he prefers not to face Yavin's memorable question ("Mr. Olmert, are you corrupt?").

Perhaps he would rather not explain why he did not attend the decoration ceremony last week for veterans of the Second Lebanon War, or why he did attend the wedding of the son of his office manager, Shula Zaken - who is currently suspended from her position while being investigated on suspicions of corruption.

It is conceivable that Olmert would want to avoid having to explain his complicated position on the Winograd Committee, which is investigating the conduct of last summer's war. He would understandably prefer to let sleeping dogs lie and bypass discussing his negotiations with Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas.

Olmert's preferences may be understandable, but his policy of avoiding interviews (and I mean the hardball kind, not silly holiday puff pieces) cannot be allowed to stand. The prime minister and the defense minister may succeed in evading the important questions, but that is not reason to allow them to go on doing so.

When it comes to engaging in dialogue with the public, the media is the only means available to the prime minister. The old "all quiet on the Olmert front" routine is getting old. Background talks, unilateral statements and calculated speeches will no longer suffice.

If Olmert finds giving 25 interviews too taxing, he can replace them with a single press conference. Everyone will understand if he stays silent on last week's Syrian incident. He's experienced enough to negotiate his way out of that one. But he must realize that he has no alternative, that he still stands to lose something. He must start counting our vote as well, and not only those of the opposition.