The Houdini of Israeli Politics

It is hard not to admire the political maneuvering of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

Weeks before the publication of the final Winograd Report, the fate of Ehud Olmert's government seems to depend more and more on public opinion and how it will be influenced by the vibrant media discourse on the decisions about the government's handling of the Second Lebanon War. Editors, writers and analysts will lead the process to determine the amount of pressure the public will apply to break up the coalition. The coalition's main component, Labor Party chief Ehud Barak, will see which way the wind is blowing before making his final decision. Afterward, he can present it as an ideological decision.

Of course, the order of things should be reversed: Politicians should first formulate their stance and then preach to the public; to lead instead of being led. Barak is particularly prone to such reversals.

He is torn between his own political interests to stay in the government and his Sdot Yam declaration in which he vowed to quit the government if the Winograd panel implicates it. His stance is intentionally vague, allowing for contradicting analyses. Everyone understands that Olmert's ousting requires Barak's approval, but Barak is mired in passivity.

In contrast, Olmert is actively carrying out his struggle for survival using a two-pronged plan. On the political side, he is strengthening his ties in the coalition while seeking to invite more parties to join. He also launched a media offensive to improve his standing in the polls, a move that is for all intents and purposes an election campaign.

It is hard not to admire the prime minister's political maneuvering: He has awarded Shas with the Ministry of Religious Affairs and met with United Torah Judaism, trying to persuade them to enter the coalition. He has pandered to Yisrael Beiteinu leader Avigdor Lieberman by allowing construction at Har Homa, and met with Meretz over the peace process. If you ask outgoing Meretz head Yossi Beilin, Olmert is the left's preferred prime minister.

His treatment of the media is no less impressive. Olmert recently taught security heads a lesson on how to use the press for political gain.

To bend the criteria for releasing Palestinian prisoners, he summoned top security leaders to a ministerial forum, knowing that their opinions supporting his views would be leaked. Reluctantly, the Israel Defense Forces's chief of staff, Gabi Ashkenazi, found himself starring in the headlines as supporting the release of prisoners with "blood on their hands."

No wonder a "senior military source" told daily Maariv that Ashkenazi was coaxed into supporting a decision that the government was afraid to reach by itself.

To improve his image, Olmert invited Channel 2's cameras into his house. First, his reclusive wife gave an interview to Dana Weiss. Then, from among all the potential interviewers, Olmert selected comedian Eli Yatzpan, a man who knows how to bring out the human, lighter side of interviewees. In one instance, Yatzpan really put the heat on Olmert. "Why don't you just go to the post office, pay the fine and get it over with?" he asked, equating the Winograd Report with a meaningless parking ticket - exactly what Olmert wants.

On the eve of the second anniversary of the start of former prime minister Ariel Sharon's coma, Olmert wrote a personal column for Maariv called "My last embrace with Sharon" in which he depicted himself as the natural heir to Sharon. Miraculously, Yedioth Aharonoth printed a similar account penned by Olmert slated for inclusion in a book.

If we add to this the embrace Olmert will receive from U.S. President George W. Bush next week, it becomes apparent that Olmert's managing of his campaign to win the public's favor is very good. But will it suffice? It is not clear.

It is, however, solidifying his line of defense: "I learned, I implemented, I rehabilitated." Public rancor is waning and more analysts are aligning with him. No one will be surprised if this Houdini of Israeli politics once again makes an amazing escape.