Olmert's Speech / Paltry Opposition

Two pictures from yesterday's Knesset debate on the Winograd Report will be engraved on the public memory. One is the bereaved parents shouting their grief at Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and being dragged from the visitors' gallery by the guards. The other is Defense Minister Ehud Barak's empty seat.

A day after throwing Olmert a lifeline with his decision to remain in the government, Barak decided to absent himself from the debate on the Winograd Report. Some viewed this as cowardice. Others viewed it as a lack of desire to grant public backing to Olmert in such a loaded setting, the very day after deciding not to resign. The heated exchanges between their staffs after the debate proved that the new chapter of the Olmert-Barak government that opened this week will be stormy and ugly. Barak may remain in the government for another six months or a year, but he will take his pangs of conscience out on Olmert.

For hours, Olmert sat stone-faced, absorbing the hail of criticism and scorn over the Second Lebanon War, taking comfort in the knowledge that the worst was behind him. Many of the MKs who attacked him yesterday had strongly supported the war in July 2006.

Olmert wrote his speech himself, during Sunday's cabinet meeting. He tried, unsuccessfully, not to argue. He admitted that there were failures during the war, but said he would make the same decision again. An experienced speechwriter might have given him a more apologetic, conciliatory message.

Yesterday's debate might or might not end the war in the parliamentary arena. But it certainly ended the personal relationship between the prime minister and the head of the opposition, which has had some good moments over the past year.

Benjamin Netanyahu pulled no punches in his attack on Olmert. He portrayed him as shallow, as someone who flees responsibility, as someone who "went missing" in action. This is the fighting opposition speech that Netanyahu declined to give in the television studios immediately after the report was published last week, lest it deter the masses from joining yesterday's anti-Olmert demonstration. But it turned out to be a paltry demonstration in any case. The protests melted away even before the snow did, and Olmert remains in power. And Netanyahu is stuck waiting for the next opportunity.