Twin Leaders, Twin Cities

The sun beat down and he was perspiring heavily, and it was clear his patience was running out; but there was no choice, he had to mollify them. He was running for his political life now, and he must not stumble.

He stood there by the microphones, wearing an affected expression of optimism, and described in unnatural colors the shining future of the battered city to the small, hand-picked audience. From his comforting and encouraging words he was able to learn that the Lord was acting charitably when he brought the terrible disaster upon them: Disasters like this offer a new start and beget new hopes.

The sun beat down and he was perspiring heavily, and it was clear his patience was running out; but there was no choice, he had to mollify them. He was running for his political life now, and he must not stumble.

Whoever saw it on television was impressed by the quiet dignity that enveloped the occasion. From time to time, faint detached applause was heard. After all, the attendees were painstakingly selected so that no hint of protest would infiltrate the modest audience and embarrass the speaker with street-mob behavior in the eyes of the world. The city has still not recovered from the disaster; and just as it was abandoned by the government during the calamity, so it was abandoned after it. Hundreds of thousands of people, about half the population of the afflicted area, still wander the country with their bundles: refugees. Enormous budgets promised for rapid rehabilitation dried up somewhere en route. But he, the determined and optimistic speaker, personally accepts "full responsibility for the functioning of the government."

No, it is not Ehud Olmert in Tiberias. It is George W. Bush in New Orleans, the city that drowned a year ago and took with it the president of the United States, into the deep water of opinion polls. Olmert and Bush: Each enjoys unprecedentedly low public support today, shallow support after the deluge. And they continue to sink.

The question floats by the shore of Lake Kinneret: Why does Olmert meet so frequently with the heads of local councils, of all people, and there of all places deliver speeches as tailored as his suits? Here too, this house-broken audience is captive and well-selected, with little alternative but to welcome its prime minister and his entourage with confections and weak applause. One planet, two places: Tiberias and New Orleans are twin cities - orphaned twins.

Both there and here they lick the boots of the Important Person and hope for the best. Perhaps despite it all, the ringing words can be converted into the ring of coins, and the looseness of tongue will not turn out to hide a tightness of fist. The town mayors are the poor of the town, putting out their hands after they have nothing left. No wonder they cling to Olmert and Shimon Peres as if they were handing out popsicles on a hot day. There is nothing to lose by flattery: Either it pays off now or it fuels grievances later, at the next meeting, and each has its own reward and pleasure.

Yes, Peres is in the entourage as well, and Olmert chuckles and prompts his hosts to invite the minister for development of the Negev and Galilee to cornerstone-laying ceremonies (may there be many more of them). Invite him and don't forget, for goodness' sake. And Peres himself, who sometimes appears as Don Quixote, seems these days more like Sancho Panza, serving his master-friend with a troubled but loyal countenance.

The worthy leaders of the North should read the list by Zeev Tzahor that was published in Yedioth Ahronoth last week. Prof. Tzahor is president of Sapir College, close to the town of Sderot, in the South. He reports that of all the promises made to the Negev region in the Hebrew year 5796 (2005-06) - the so-called "Year of Development of the Negev and the Galilee" - none were carried out. The year is ending and only the promises endure.

Nevertheless, the secret of the frequent and sycophantic meetings is more complex. There is a pact between the prime minister and the mayors and heads of local councils of the North, a pact of failures. The Lebanon war was not their finest hour. True, there were those among them who came together for the best; but those who, by contrast, came together for the worst feel fine in Olmert's company. Will he reject their deficient functioning on the basis of his own? Of course not. He will heap praise on their heads, wring their hands, and each will say to his fellow comrades in failure, "Amen." Togetherness or death: and who really wants to be the first to die?

The residents of New Orleans never had a chance when Hurricane Katrina came and went, leaving death and destruction in its wake. Americans were astonished as Israelis are astonished, both squirming in shock and humiliation. Bush and his entire administration was unable to build the ark in time for the deluge. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) was like a straw to a drowning man. And how was it supposed to carry out its mission with a director who used to raise and sell Arabian horses? The one who appointed him - the president - apparently forgot FEMA had to take care of humans and not only horses.

Olmert has possibly surpassed his mentor. On his watch, not only horse-breeders get appointed to important positions, but horses themselves - at least that is the impression one gets from the appointments at the Industry and Trade Ministry. The Roman emperor Caligula appointed his horse, and Olmert appoints mules and asses - as long as they remain friendly to their superior and their braying sounds like brays of support: "Ehud to power - heehaw, heehaw, heehaw." Since Olmert was elected to head the government in the general elections (and by fate), the "Big Business Authority" has been run like the Small Business Authority, currently the subject of a cronyism investigation. One friend brings another who then brings more - and that's how the country is run. We've caught up with America!

Lady Luck has come to Bush and Olmert's aid. The mess in New Orleans has almost overshadowed the Iraq fiasco, because Bush now has an urgent national mission: to put Louisiana and Alabama back on their feet again. And don't bother him about the 800 or so who are shot or slaughtered or beheaded in Iraq every month - and a few more in Afghanistan.

And what would Olmert have done without his own hurricane? Now, thank goodness, he too has a national mission of the highest priority. Without the war, the government would have remained devoid of vision, and without vision the nation would have settled accounts with it. So don't bother Olmert about the 1.5 million poor, or the malignant corruption, or the occupation whose final countdown to a unilateral withdrawal has been stopped.

Bush will continue and Olmert will continue, because in practical terms there is no way to get rid of lame ducks, and the road of the lame is sometimes a long cul-de-sac. American protests and Israeli protests have so far been unable to gain momentum, and are still at the stage of a low-category tropical storm. The protesters and demonstrators have not managed to close ranks, to formulate a clear message, to identify an alternative, to erase unfounded suspicions of each other. All this is true, but it is not the most important thing.

In an article in the New York Times last week, Andrew Rosenthal attempted to solve the enigma: Where have all the Vietnam War protesters of the 1960s and 1970s gone? After all, the great majority of Americans are fed up with Bush, so why is their voice not being heard? Rosenthal finds the explanation in the repeal of compulsory military service. At a personal level, the war in Iraq hardly touches the middle class. It is not their sons risking their lives far from home, only the sons of the lower classes.

Compulsory service is still in force in Israel, so Rosenthal's thesis does not quite solve our own enigma. Still, I will propose a similar explanation. Perhaps this war was too limited, limited in time and scope. Perhaps the number of fatalities on both the battlefield and the home front was not high enough to fuel a protest movement. Perhaps only the next war, which is likely to be longer and more lethal, will fill the country with protest - and what a protest it will be.

The waves are not very high, and Olmert believes that if he can only dip his head for a moment, he will be able to ride out the storm. He has his own characteristic way of navigating the straits until the worst is over. He always excelled in walking on the brink, in the twilight zone, between sunrise and sunset, between flattery and defiance, between bowing the head and holding it high, between secret promises and low performance, between the proper and approved and the offensive and corrupt, between the office and his home on Cremieux Street. In his new house, at No. 8, he is accumulating a rare collection of letters of recommendation and credit notes that is already arousing interest among sensationalist collectors, and will one day be sold for a considerable sum. Olmert does not have to retire to make his home here; he is talented enough to enjoy both worlds at once.

He who wants to keep his head above murky water should go further down. This is an established formula recommended by experts in alternative politics - and Tiberias is deep within the Syrian-African Rift. How did you fall on us in August out of an April sky, O mad predator? True, Hassan Nasrallah is in hiding, but you are also captive between your bodyguards, trapped among your sycophants. True, Nasrallah is afraid of being assassinated at your command, but you, too, are afraid: You do not pay open public visits to Kiryat Shmona, Nahariya, Safed, Tiberias or Margaliot, but come surrounded by bodyguards, and in exemplary New Orleans style. Nasrallah's popularity in Lebanon (and not only there) is still greater than yours over here; and in that respect at least, you would like to switch places with him.

And what could be lower than to skin Tel Aviv in the Tiberias market as if it were a carcass? Once, after the Gulf War, Tel Avivians almost had to apologize for remaining alive - at least that is what the general of the army's manpower division hinted at the time, and then they had to apologize for living their lives, according to a certain prime minister. No sooner had you objected to the "self-flagellation" did you yourself lash them and chastise them that more of their coffee than their blood had flowed during the war. One might think the prime minister, his ministers and his officials had become ascetics during those terrible days, forswearing food and drink, and all as one had gone North and moved into the bomb shelters. The residents of the central and southern parts of Israel conducted themselves admirably, opening their hearts and their homes, hosting and donating, staying quiet ("Sshhhh - they're still shooting"), and overcoming fears and criticism. So why are they being reproached?

Let us not conceal the truth: Olmert's weakness has a positive side as well. Among the military forces taking up positions in South Lebanon are some from countries that just yesterday, when the whole world was against us, were considered hostile to Israel. There are troops from Muslim countries, not all of which have relations with Israel. Who would have thought that an Israeli government would agree to have them protect us in the North? That is what happens when our great friend and ally, the United States of America, is getting burned in Iraq, and is already burned in the region as a whole.

The primary importance of the upgraded and expanded United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) lies not in what happens, but in what could happen. If the force functions satisfactorily it will not stop on our northern border, and it will be deployed on the border between us and the Palestinian state. There is a good chance that sooner or later, it will take up positions in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank - and its good chance is also our only chance. Thus the program envisioned by Shlomo Ben-Ami and myself for an international mandate in the occupied territories for an interim period will at last be realized. The international force will replace the Israel Defense Forces and its "Civil Administration," and reaffirm the crumbling and recalcitrant Palestinian Authority in preparation for full independence. In the current situation, there is no substitute for our program.

There is no counsel and no wisdom. It takes a serious knock to open minds big and small to new thinking. Even the weak have special qualities, and their weaknesses have value. Olmert is a bad prime minister who is good for the Jews - on the condition that he is weak and confused. When a prime minister is like a fallen leaf, there is nothing left but to hope that the wind will blow in the right direction, but who knows the way of the wind?