Rhetoric Shmetoric

Olmert mocked the media and said a prime minister doesn't need an agenda. His job is to run the country. With all the spin and the bungles and the police inquiries going on around him, one gets the impression that he's not so great at that either.

You don't have to be a psychic like Uri Geller to guess what David Ben-Gurion's response would be to Ehud Olmert's speech at his graveside. "Why over my grave, and not Menachem Begin's?" "How come he didn't say: 'It doesn't matter what the goyim say, it matters what the Jews do.'" "How come he didn't say, 'I don't give the people what they want, I give them what they need.'" Ben-Gurion would have dismissed Olmert's pompous speech with the kind of play on words he loved so much. "Rhetoric shmetoric," he would have said - lots of highfalutin talk, but that's about it.

Not long ago, Olmert mocked the media for asking about his agenda. His immortal reply was that a prime minister doesn't need an agenda. His job is to run the country. With all the spin and the bungles and the police inquiries going on around him, one gets the impression that he's not so great at that either.

But then one morning, at the annual memorial service at Ben-Gurion's grave, of all places, he gets up and moves Ariel Sharon's initiative to shelve the dream of a Greater Israel another step forward: He calls for a cease-fire on the Palestinian front and the commencement of talks on dividing the land, conjuring up the image of tens of thousands of settlers leaving the West Bank in exchange for peace. It's taken him a long time, but it has finally sunk in that a leader does need an agenda.

Yet the suddenness of it all raises some questions. Like, why now? Because after the screwups in the recent Lebanon war and the proliferation of commissions of inquiry (to the point where it might be worthwhile to establish an investigation ministry), Olmert has taken a steep dive in the opinion polls. The vast majority of the people in this country are disappointed with his leadership and his way of running things. They blame him for the fact that the Qassam rockets are still falling. For someone who loves to grab the spotlight at public events in Israel and abroad, it seems bizarre that Olmert has never set foot in Sderot.

The official explanation for Olmert's conspicuous absence is that a visit to Sderot poses a "security risk." Does this mean that the lives of Defense Minister Amir Peretz, who goes home to sleep in Sderot every night, and of the other residents of Sderot, who have been bombarded day in and day out for years, are worth less? After Olmert's graveside oratory, the lady from Sderot interviewed on TV had a right to be angry. "We've been suffering here for six years," she said. "Get off your high horse and speak to us at our level. You used a lot of fancy words today, but we don't believe you. You don't mean a word of what you say."

Question No. 2: Is Olmert busy trying to save his own skin? The answer is yes. The bungled war, the lack of preparation of the army and the home front, the fact that one million citizens were forced to flee their homes, the incessant rocket-fire - all these have eroded our image in the world as strong and smart.

The idea that President Bush, Olmert's backslapping, photo-op buddy, is in Jordan and has not deigned, as of now, to pop over for a little schmooze with his dear friend in Jerusalem, is pumping up Olmert's blood pressure. But Bush has other things to worry about right now in this part of the world - like how to get out of Iraq, how to neutralize the Iranian threat and, above all, how to keep Iran from building up a Shi'ite alliance that could ignite the whole region.

Question No. 3: How, and in what forum, was a decision reached to call a cease-fire and start talking to the Palestinian Authority about a permanent accord involving vast territorial concessions? Was this done with the same haste and cursory thinking as the Lebanon war?

Was the army a partner to the decision, or only informed in part, as the chief of staff claims? Did the foreign minister, Tzipi Livni, know about it? If she did, why was she barked at for proposing a political initiative? Was the defense minister in on this decision? If so, then why was Olmert angry when Peretz called Abu Mazen?

So what forum are we talking about? Does Olmert have some secret kitchen cabinet where he keeps anonymous advisers, along with his stash of Cuban cigars?

In principle, Olmert's initiative is a welcome move in the right direction. The question is whether or not it is doable. His speech at Ben-Gurion's graveside was a fine piece of oratory. But it's the outcome that will determine whether it was a historic speech or rhetoric-shmetoric.