Olmert's Speech / Advanced Spin

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was brimming with innovations yesterday in his address at the opening of the Knesset's winter term. First of all, he cut the strand of hair that had covered his pate and used to dance in the wind. According to his aides, Olmert decided on the change of hairstyle two and a half weeks ago. He thereby followed in the footsteps of his good friend, former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, who took a similar turn after the Twin Towers attack. Perhaps the Lebanon war had a similar impact on Olmert.

The change in policy was more dramatic. Comparing Olmert's speech yesterday to the one that introduced his government in the Knesset, on May 4, reveals highly significant differences. Then his top priority was setting the border between Israel and the Palestinians, with or without an agreement. Now the prime minister has far more pressing matters to attend to: changing the system of government, introducing a constitution and rendering the political system more stable.

All these matters are not even hinted at in the guidelines of the Olmert government, nor were they included in his inaugural speech in May.

A few weeks ago, when the newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth came out with front-page headline that Olmert intends to change the system of government, his bureau responded with vigorous denials of what looked like momentary spin. Even on Rosh Hashannah eve Olmert denied that headline, and said only that the problem of political and parliamentary stability "deserves through examination." Now the spin has advanced to the head of the agenda.

What happened? Did Olmert discover something new about Israeli politics? Did stability and "governance" suddenly become unmoored? At the Prime Minister's Office they say that the change in his position stemmed from coalition negotiations with Avigdor Lieberman. And if Lieberman insists on changing the system of government, then that is the most pressing problem, which must be dealt with this very Knesset term.

But Olmert is not making due with structural changes to the regime, but is also proposing a constitution - an idea no less pretentious than setting the border with the Palestinians, if not more complicated.

And Olmert has further innovations. He toughened his stance on the nuclear threat from Iran. In the spring he still termed it "a heavy shadow on the region and a threat to world peace," and yesterday he was already talking about "an existential threat to Israel and an existential threat to world peace." In a similar vein, Olmert toughened his demand on the international community to keep Iran from gaining nuclear weapons, and pledged that this issue will be at the center of his upcoming meetings with the Russian and American presidents.

Another surprise related to matters of church and state: the government guidelines promise to maintain the religious status quo. Now Olmert wants to ensure Israel's "Jewish character," and to make "decisions in the areas of conversion and regarding the nature of Shabbat."

All of Olmert's innovations and surprises share a common motive: his desire to survive and expand the coalition, to guarantee the budget passes and to inoculate himself against rebellions and ambushes by the Labor Party. The lesson of yesterday's speech is that Olmert's positions change due to political contingency. His extollers will call him pragmatic, while rivals will say this is Ehud in flip-flop.