When the Mask Cracks

Olmert has already proven that he can declare war without blinking, conduct spicy real-estate deals, shift responsibility to others and emerge unscathed from all sorts of complications and suspicions.

As in the old comedy routine, where you take a man's mind off his headache by hitting him on the leg with a sledgehammer, so public attention has darted back and forth between the residue of the Lebanon war, the barren political spin and the daily revelations of corruption or dysfunction in the country's leadership. Each of these three simultaneous shows tries to grab the limelight from the others, and it is hard to say which is the worst.

No wonder, therefore, that in last week's not-very-festive holiday interview, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's post-Sharon mask of affability, on which the spin-meisters have labored for months, finally slipped. And here before us was the man we have always known: sarcastic, biting, quick-tempered, sour, opposed to negotiations, a silver tongue that turns sword-steel sharp.

At the same time, the august facade of the President's Residence has cracked beyond repair - a facade that principally finds expression in walking on carpets while wearing a suit and a smile, in donning a skullcap and in leafing through brochures alongside "the wife." Through the stammered denials, the counterattacks, the desperate leaks and the belligerent language of the criminal lawyers surrounding the president, the facade of presidential "majesty" has never seemed more shamefaced and pathetic.

For years, the Likud wheeler-dealer from Kiryat Malachi worked on the disguise of supposed "statesmanship" in which he had wrapped himself - a heavy, stifling disguise from whose depths only bland cliches escape, and even those are uttered without moving the lips. And behold! The doll marching at the head of the carnival procession has fallen apart with a bang, exposing the naked man within.

In the past, when Israeli politics was made up of two dominant parties, Likud and Labor, and each was divided internally into hostile rival camps, it was easier to know on whom to blame a scandal. It was all a "clear conspiracy" by "the Peres camp," a spin by "Bibi's people," mischief by "Arik's people," and so on and so forth.

Today, with the Kadima phenomenon, some of the cards have been shuffled. Apart from the fingerprints of the "orange" protesters and their allies in a few of the recent cases - especially those involving Olmert and Haim Ramon - the conspiracy talk about "a bunch of criminals and blackmailers" (as per Moshe Katsav's accusations) sounds more hollow than ever before.

What interest does "Bibi's camp" have in bringing him down? Just because it is the only camp left in the Likud? It is only because of his troubles that Katsav has returned to his Likud past, as if to a second childhood. (It is interesting that Benjamin Netanyahu, in the "tape-recording" farce, used exactly the same expression: "a bunch of criminals" tried to blackmail me, etc.)

Indeed, if there is any pattern to the wave of corruption and exposures, it lies in the fact that most of the suspects are graduates of the educational institution called the Likud Central Committee, the university for everything that is considered base in Israeli politics. It is a political culture that in the end tarnishes its own, however respectable and statesmanlike they try to appear - whether in the presidency, the premiership or Knesset committees, and whether in the fancy dress of Shinui or the lofty dignity of Kadima.

Olmert himself is one of those graduates. Among his efforts to demonstrate statesmanship (which are nothing more than clumsy attempts to survive), most prominent is the balloon of the Saudi initiative, which he almost simultaneously inflated and burst. Olmert has already proven that, thanks to his well-known qualities, he has the ability to declare war without blinking, to conduct spicy real-estate deals, to shift responsibility to others and to emerge unscathed from all sorts of complications and suspicions. But a peace initiative? Olmert? On this, even the spin failed to work.

Being manipulative and shifty are traits that do not go well with peace initiatives and peace-making. The latter need not only a panoramic vision, but also a degree of integrity and an untarnished reputation. Perhaps it is no coincidence that the first Israeli leader to sign a peace agreement with the Arabs was Menachem Begin, a man who was honest and decent almost to a fault, hiding no skeletons in the closet, even his own. By contrast, it is perhaps no accident that a man like Ariel Sharon, who dragged a big can of worms behind him, was not even able to have a dialogue with the Arabs, let alone reach any kind of agreement with them. And between the two extremes was Yitzhak Rabin, hesitant but a man of integrity, who shook the hands of Yasser Arafat and King Hussein.

Negotiations and agreements with an enemy represent a "leap of faith" that rises above suspicions and demonstrates some trust in the other side's intentions, even at the risk of being proven false. For that reason, one side at least needs both personal integrity and a willingness to assume responsibility. And one more leadership quality that has almost been forgotten over here: good faith.

But Olmert? Good faith? He is not that kind of sucker.