The Leader Israel Deserves

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert speaks at a conference in Tel Aviv, 28 December 2006. (Moti Milrod/MaanImages)


The second Lebanon War of summer 2006 threw a dark shadow over the government of Ehud Olmert and his party, Kadima. For the first time, Israel got to know what it’s like to cower helplessly under barrages of rocket fire. The 4,000 Katyushas that rained on Galilee for 33 days rubbed in the feeling of failure. The air force could not stop them. The government could not protect or supply its citizens. It left them to fend as best they could, ruled by the wails of sirens.

After the cease fire, Israelis demanded an investigation, as they had following the lapse of October 1973. In an attempt to calm the welling rage, Olmert established an investigative committee under retired judge Eliahu Winograd. Many at the time disputed the PM’s right to appoint the body whose function it was to investigate him. Winograd, however, did not disappoint the head hunters. On April 30, 2007, the Committee published its Interim Report, which gave failing marks to the three main figures behind the war: Olmert, Defense Secretary Amir Peretz and Chief of Staff Dan Halutz (who had already resigned). The decision to launch the war, it wrote, was taken in haste, without sufficient regard for the danger of the rockets or the lack of civil defense, without consideration of alternatives, without achievable goals and without an exit strategy. The Committee refrained from demanding the resignations of Olmert and Peretz, leaving this — it said — “to the public.” It did reserve the option of making that demand in its Final Report, which is scheduled for August.

The public duly appeared. On Thursday, May 3, three nights after the Report’s publication, about 150,000 assembled in Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square. Right and Left stood shoulder to shoulder, demanding the heads of Olmert and Peretz. The banner on the stage read, “Failures, go home!”

The public blissfully forgot to count itself among the “failures.” Those standing shoulder to shoulder in Rabin Square had also stood thus, figuratively speaking, on July 12, 2006 when they backed the decision to pound Lebanon. The Israeli consensus was seamless then too, only in the opposite direction. Warrior Olmert enjoyed celestial popularity. Even Meretz leader Yossi Beilin claimed, as late as August, that “the military response [to rocket fire — Ed.] in the Gaza Strip is justified in our eyes, and the response in Lebanon no less” (Meretz website: “The Test of the Zionist Left”).

But so are things in war. Patriotic feeling swells the breast. Ideological differences melt. In this case, the wrath of Israel was spent upon the destitute of Lebanon.

Things also have their characteristic pattern in the aftermath of failure. The right-wingers in the Square blamed Olmert not for entering the war, but for failing to prosecute it ruthlessly. He didn’t commit the ground troops soon enough. He didn’t go all the way. The Right overlooks the fact that he had no mandate for a massive ground operation. It would have meant many casualties. Israel today is unwilling to take casualties. Knowing this, Olmert hoped to do the job from the air. It didn’t work, so he gets the blame for the unwillingness to take casualties.

The right-wingers took their stand in the Square for other reasons too. They hate Olmert for backing disengagement from Gaza and for contemplating “convergence” in the West Bank. But above all, his ouster would likely result in new elections, and these, if held today, would bring Binyamin (Bibi) Netanyahu again to power. This is the same Bibi who led the Likud to only 15 seats in the elections of 2006. Because of his neoliberal cuts in welfare as Sharon’s Finance Minister, he had by then become the most hated politician in the country. It is a measure of the turnabout occasioned by the war that today he beats all contenders! According to a Haaretz poll, his Likud today would get 30 seats, Labor 21 and Kadima 14 (Ha’aretz, “Haaretz poll: 40% want elections, 68% say Olmert should resign,” 2 May 2007).

But if the ousting of Olmert would open the door to Netanyahu, why did the Left go to Rabin Square on that Thursday night after Winograd? Quite simply, it went in haste, without sufficient regard for the danger, without consideration of alternatives, without achievable goals and without an exit strategy. The Left is “naive,” wrote Yediot Aharonot pundit Nahum Barnea on May 4. The alliance of Right and Left in the Square, wrote Nehemia Shtrasler in Ha’aretz on May 6, is one of horse and rider — the Left is the horse and the Right is the rider.

Netanyahu stands between the PM and the abyss. Olmert is almost universally viewed as a shady opportunist, lacking in conviction, principle, conscience, vision or integrity. Over his head hang four potential indictments for corruption. In the Knesset, however, the fear of Bibi is greater than the revulsion at Olmert. Even the Arab parties, who don’t stop voicing their disgust, swallow it back because of that fear. In the current situation, whoever seeks Olmert’s resignation is, in effect, a Bibi-ite.

To behead leaders is easy enough, especially in a society that raises and deposes them rapidly. Yet Olmert is no strange bird on Israel’s political scene. He is its authentic product. He is both Right and Left. He represents the political and ideological fuzziness — or want of spine—that has characterized Israeli society for the last two decades. Israel wants peace, yes — but is unwilling to pay the price. Sometimes, therefore, it also wants war—but is unwilling to sacrifice troops. In short, it wants painless war or painless peace. This is politics, however, not dentistry.

Israel devours its leaders because it is not prepared to accept the simple truths with which these leaders, in order to lead, must cope. The first such truth is this: as long as it remains intent on dominating the Middle East, there can be no such thing as a winnable war. One day’s apparent victory engenders the morrow’s defeat. And suppose a leader should attempt the impossible, making concessions for peace? He has Rabin’s fate to consider. Ehud Barak, we concede, did try — but only as a drowning man grasping at a straw. By the time he reached Camp David, his coalition had dissolved beneath his feet.

Under these conditions, Israelis prefer the following solution: Since war cannot be won, avoid it as much as possible, and since there is no majority for peace, avoid it too. Live sans peace, sans war. And how does one manage that? Simple. Make only the concessions that are comfortable. So Barak behaved when he pulled out of Lebanon in May 2000, and so Sharon behaved when he pulled out of Gaza in 2006. Unilateralism was the trick.

The results speak for themselves. Rockets from Gaza land on Sderot, and rockets from Lebanon fell, last summer, on the cities of the north. The Palestinian and Syrian issues, which lead ever again to war, have not been addressed. Both would require dismantling settlements — a feat beyond the power and will of any Israeli government.

Post-Zionist Israel, then — where the stock exchange achieves record highs, whose moguls buy historic buildings in Manhattan — cannot produce a leader to conduct its affairs. The good life must go on. For this post-Zionist Israel disengaged from Gaza. For this it erects a wall between itself and Palestine, leaving deep-ditch poverty out of sight. But the good life will have its limit. Reality encroaches on every side. Twenty minutes separate Tel Aviv from the cordoned-off, implacable West Bank town of Qalqilya. Those are the minutes parting hell from heaven, war from peace. The minutes grow ever shorter.

CHALLENGE is a bi-monthly leftist magazine focusing on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict within a global context. Published in Jaffa by Arabs and Jews, it features political analysis, investigative reporting, interviews, eye-witness reports, gender studies, arts, and more. This article first appeared in Challenge #100 and is reprinted with permission.

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