Israeli prime minister besieged, but fights on
JERUSALEM – Police are investigating him for corruption. His military chief has resigned. His office manager is under house arrest, and an inquiry commission is looking into his alleged mishandling of last summer’s Lebanon war.
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s mounting political troubles – combined with high-profile sexual misconduct cases against both President Moshe Katsav and former Justice Minister Haim Ramon – have weakened Israelis’ faith in their leaders to an extent previously unknown.
Just a year in power, Olmert faces detractors on both left and right who are predicting his political demise. “It looks very bad for him,” said former Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom of Likud, the hard-line opposition party which now leads the polls.
But his supporters say a strong economy and an unusually stable governing coalition should be enough to keep him in power – provided he can avoid indictment on charges that as finance minister two years ago he tried to rig the sale of a major Israeli bank.
“He’s well aware of the low public opinion polls and he reads the newspapers like everybody else,” said Olmert’s spokeswoman, Miri Eisin. But “he feels that he is going in the right direction at the right pace, that he has a strong coalition and that in time public opinion and the media emphasis will change.”
Israeli public opinion has turned sharply against Olmert in the aftermath of the Lebanon war, with one poll putting his approval rating at just 14 percent. Most Israelis believe the war badly damaged their long-term deterrence by failing to achieve its goals of freeing two captured Israeli soldiers and crushing Hezbollah guerrillas, who bombarded northern Israel for four straight weeks during the war.
The resignation of Lt. Gen. Dan Halutz, the military chief of staff, fueled calls for both Olmert and Defense Minister Amir Peretz to follow suit. Those two “have the main responsibility for Israel’s national security, and if our national security was harmed because of their wrong decisions, they have to go,” said Likud lawmaker Yuval Steinitz.
Israeli prime ministers have historically had to govern a country evenly divided between hawks and doves. But leaders such as David Ben Gurion, Ariel Sharon and Yitzhak Rabin also enjoyed a degree of trust in wartime that Olmert, a 61-year-old lawyer with no military background, has failed to achieve.
“Israel is not like other countries. We are in a permanent state of siege and existential threat,” said Yossi Klein Halevi, senior fellow at the Shalem Center, a Jerusalem think tank. “That means that we can’t afford the same banal quality of political leadership that countries in the West, for example, can live with.”
Olmert’s best hope for survival appears to be his strong coalition, representing 78 of the 120 members of the Knesset, or parliament. But the platform that secured the election of Olmert and his centrist Kadima Party last March – unilateral withdrawal from some Arab territories – has become outdated.
A concept that seemed compelling then – that Israel need not wait for formal peace treaties to set its own borders – has given way to a widely held conviction that there is no alternative to negotiations. Unilateral Israeli pullouts from both Lebanon and Gaza ended up bolstering Islamic radicals.
So if he can avoid indictments and weather the findings, expected in March, of the commission investigating the Lebanon war, Olmert might find a lifeline in a renewed peace effort with the Palestinians.
Two developments Friday – Israel’s release of $100 million of frozen funds to the Palestinian Authority and its reversal of a contentious decision to authorize a new West Bank settlement – appear likely to strengthen moderate Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ hand as he heads into talks in Damascus with his radical Hamas rivals.
And Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Thursday that she, Olmert and Abbas would likely meet by mid-February to revive the long-stalled peace process.
But many elements would first have to fall into place: a new Palestinian government that either excludes Hamas or tames it; the exchange of an Israeli soldier captured by Hamas-linked militants for hundreds of Palestinian prisoners held by Israel; and the agreement of Olmert’s right-wing coalition partners to make concessions.
Yossi Beilin, head of the left-wing Yahad Party, also predicted Olmert would fall and a new coalition would arise representing 70 lawmakers who, he said, favor negotiations.
“So the power to go for peace exists,” he said.
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