Ehud Olmert has found himself in a fix never before experienced by any Israeli prime minister before him: His own party, Kadima, is dumping him. Its strategists joined forces with its coalition partner, the Labor party, for a deal signed Wednesday, June 25, to replace him as head of government and party before Sept. 25. Kadima undertook to streamline the procedures for a leadership primary and to hold it before that deadline.
By October, 2008, Olmert will be gone, dropped by his own loyalists, and a new Kadima prime minister will rule Israel with Labor endorsement guaranteed. The present front-runners to succeed him are foreign minister Tzipi Livni, a lawyer with even less government experience than Olmert, and transport minister Shaul Mofaz, a former IDF chief of staff and defense minister. Barring unforeseen events, the prospect of an early general election this year has receded to the spring of 2009.
Israel is therefore being dragged into one of the most critical three-month periods of its history, Iran’s threshold to nuclear armament, in a leadership void. The fateful decisions on whether or not to pre-empt a nuclear-armed Iran by force, with or without the United States, falls to a lame duck prime minister.
Olmert’s endemic unpopularity and the five corruption investigations current against him, dramatized last month by the Long Island financier Morris Talansky’s revelations about the envelopes stuffed with cash he gave him for 15 years, are generally credited with being the cause of Olmert’s downfall.
Olmert’s fate sealed by his innate fear of military action
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s military and political sources in Jerusalem disclose even more compelling and urgent national considerations:
1. His response pattern to defense crises is one. Since his 2006 Lebanon War blunders were exposed, Ehud Olmert has consistently shied away from all military action. Israel’s enemies have caught onto this pattern and it has seriously eroded Israel’s power to deter future aggression.
2. He has consistently put his personal connections in the White House and Bush administration – and, more recently, with French president Nicolas Sarkozy – ahead of any other diplomatic or security considerations. Israel’s national military, security and intelligence elite fears this predilection will tie Israel’s hands in dealing with the nuclear threat from Iran.
The decision to drop Olmert and not wait for the opposition to overturn the government culminated a process which DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Israel experts have tracked.
Henry Kissinger once coined the catchphrase that Israel has no foreign policy only a domestic one.
That was never true. Israel has always had a foreign policy and its leaders shaped it irrespective of domestic politics.
PMs Sharon and Barak left nuclear-armed Iran in Washington’s care
After easily deposing Labor’s Ehud Barak as prime minister in a general election, Ariel Sharon launched a major counter-terror campaign from 2000 to 2003 to combat Palestinian suicide tactics which Barak failed to prevent or fight. But Sharon too cooled it in March 2003, after the US-led invasion of Iraq, and began aligning Israel’s foreign and defense policy with that of George W. Bush and his administration.
By then, too, the Israeli military had captured most of the West Bank’s main cities.
Theoretically, Sharon and Barak before him grasped Iran’s nuclear aspirations as a threat – not just to Israel’s survival, but equally to America’s Middle East holdings and the stability of the pro-Western Arab Sunni regimes led by Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Both Israeli leaders turned away from an autonomous approach to the problem and reliance on Israel’s intelligence and military capabilities. They echoed Washington’s mantra: Since the threat of a nuclear-armed Iran was worldwide, let the international community take care of it.
Like their predecessors, Barak and Sharon alike found an Israeli war on Iran impractical and accordingly failed to prepare for one.
It was only in the second half of 2005, when Sharon could no longer ignore Iran’s ominously burgeoning nuclear and ballistic programs and the futility of sanctions to halt their advance, that the penny dropped in Jerusalem and the prime minister instructed the IDF to start gearing up for confrontation as a realistic option.
Bu then disaster struck: Ariel Sharon suffered a massive stroke and relapsed into a coma. His hastily installed successor, Ehud Olmert, totally inexperienced in foreign and security statecraft, simply continued his predecessor’s lockstep with Washington.
What he failed to take into account was that the missteps of the leaders who went before him would come home to roost during his tenure.
Olmert bowed to Bush wish for Hamas to run for election
In January 2006, the newly-appointed prime minister tamely surrendered to Bush and US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice, then in full cry of their Middle East democratization campaign, and let the fundamentalist terrorist Hamas organization run for election to the Palestinian parliament. Israeli security experts’ worst fears were realized when the extremist Palestinian group, which denied Israel’s right to exist, walked off with the lead, trouncing Mahmoud Abbas’ Fatah.
None of the decision-makers had reckoned on Tehran’s reaction to the Hamas victory.
In fact, Iran’s clerical rulers seized on it as a brilliant turning-point for their own foreign policy objectives. It convinced the Islamic Revolution that, by exploiting Western political processes, it could attain its expansionist goals – and not just through the Shiite communities of the nearby Persian Gulf emirates and Iraq. They now believed they could fulfill Ayatollah Khomenei’s vision for the Islamic Revolution he founded in Iran to loop a strong political, military and religious crescent across the region.
Six months after Hamas rose to power, Iran’s Lebanese instrument, the Shiite Hizballah, executed a cross-border attack on Israel which launched the Lebanon war of July 2006. Although taken unawares, Olmert was confident the war would be end in days with Hizballah’s defeat. He was disastrously mistaken. Indeed, he had the dubious distinction of becoming the first Israeli prime minister in 60 years to lead the IDF to a military fiasco and an Arab army to a tactical victory.
Under the Olmert premiership, Israel’s security situation went from bad to worse.
Even Golda Meir, who was caught napping by the multi-Arab assault on Israel in October 1973, succeeded in turning the debacle into an epic victory. Israeli troops threw back the invading Egyptian army, fetching up on Egyptian soil 101 kilometers northwest of Cairo, while the IDF repulsed the advancing Syrian army and came to within 40 kilometers east of Damascus.
Hizballah’s Lebanon victory energized Tehran’s regional ambitions
Olmert’s war started and ended on the Israeli-Lebanese frontier and so broke away from Israel’s most hallowed military doctrine: Always carry the battle into enemy territory because Israel is too small in area and its population too close to Arab borders to survive any incursion.
From that moment, the Hizballah’s backers in Tehran were perceived in the Middle East and Persian Gulf as a rising regional power that appeared to be unstoppable.
A year later, in June 2007, Tehran struck again on the Mediterranean through a Palestinian proxy: Hamas easily swept the pro-American Palestinian Authority’s chairman Mahmoud Abbas and his Fatah out of the Gaza Strip and seized power as sole ruler.
Had the United States, Israel and Egypt taken to heart the hard lessons of the Lebanon War, they might have intervened and prevented the Gaza Strip’s fall and its transformation into a pro-Iranian outpost.
But Olmert once again adhered to the Bush administration’s tactic. Instead of sending in the troops he imposed a regime of isolation and blockade on the Gaza Strip.
This time too, hopes of breaking Hamas’ will and grip on the territory were dashed. Hamas, supplied with a massive flow of weapons and combat instructors by Hizballah, Syria and Iran, turned the siege strategy, which was never fully effective, back on its executors. They launched the biggest missile blitz against a civilian population in military history, firing 4,000 different types of missile in one year against the 250,000 Israelis within range.
Still, Olmert refused to let the IDF go beyond nibbling around the edges of the Hamas war machine in Gaza. Instead of unchaining the army for an effective campaign to knock out Hamas’ missile capabilities, Olmert once against capitulated to a pro-Iranian Arab force. On June 18, he accepted a ceasefire indirectly negotiated with Hamas through Egypt.
The Palestinian war machine remained fully intact.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s political sources report that this ceasefire, which came under heavy fire domestically (See HOT POINTS of June 20 below), was the last straw for Israel’s military and intelligence strategists. Most vocal were the ex-officers who entered politics after retiring and now occupy senior cabinet and government positions.
Israel‘s security elite draw the line on the security slide
They resolved to no longer allow the prime minister’s fear of military action to lead the country into meekly following the Bush lead on the nuclear threat. As Tehran approached its goal of a nuclear bomb, they decided Israel must lose no time in developing an autonomous defense policy in keeping with its national security interests.
These heavy hitters take extreme issue with Olmert’s course on another sensitive front, his engagement in indirect peace talks with Syria through the good offices of Turkey.
They fiercely challenge the prime minister’s argument that Israel can afford to give up the Golan, captured after the Syrian invasion, because it is not an essential ingredient of its national military and strategic security. They also contest his claim that a peace accord with Israel will loosen Damascus’ bonds with Tehran and contend to the contrary, it will strengthen the anti-West, anti-Israel axis.
The French president Nicolas Sarkozy’s rise as the new star on the Western diplomatic firmament has added to their alarm. Israel’s security experts expect Sarkozy’s drive for an opening to Syria and its president Bashar Assad, with President Bush’s concurrence, to bring Iran important profits in Israel’s immediate neighborhood.
They are impressed by the latest theory heard from Arab strategists, who claim that the Iranian-Hizballah battlefield success against Israel in 2006 and seizure of Beirut from pro-Western elements in 2008 are the prologue of Iran’s overall plans. Next in Tehran’s revolutionary sights, they say, is the Sunni Hashemite kingdom of Jordan, followed by Egypt.
The politicians who have charted Olmert’s exit hope to draw a line on this dangerous slide and stiffen Israel’s military backbone for the challenges ahead. It is no coincidence that the chairman of the Knesset foreign and affairs and security committee, Tzahi Hanegbi of Kadima, hatched the plan to bring Olmert’s political career to an end with Labor’s connivance and without toppling the government.
As chairman of this powerful panel, Henegbi was well placed to act as front man for the defense and military community. He has made no secret of his – and their – concern. In a radio interview last Saturday, June 21, Hanegbi warned the Olmert government was falling apart and in no condition to undertake the tough security decisions ahead.