Olmert in a Losing Battle against Waning Popularity

Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert is fighting for his political life.

He is facing persistent demands to take responsibility for declaring and mismanaging the Lebanon war as head of government, and not wait for the panel chaired by former justice Elihahu Winograd to release its final report Wednesday, Jan. 30.

His government is wobbling and talk of an early election is in the air.

The panel’s interim report of April 30, 2007 provided ample chapter and verse to support allegations of his mismanagement. The commission’s findings were disturbing enough to force Amir Peretz to step down as wartime defense minister, Lt. Gen. Dan Halutz to quit as chief of staff and a long list of generals who led their men into battle against Hizballah to retire from the service, including OC northern command Maj. Gen. Udi Adam and a row of division commanders.

His critics cite the content of the inquiry panel’s interim report as sufficient grounds for his resignation. But this Olmert resolutely refuses to accept, whatever the panel’s final judgment may be.

The interim report found him personally accountable for the hasty decision to go to war without first studying all the circumstances or defining its objectives, on the spur of the moment after Hizballah’s cross-border abduction of two soldiers and the first Katyusha rocket salvoes against northern Israel.

Olmert, Peretz and Halutz were all accused of poor judgment. Cabinet ministers were described as voting for the war without understanding its implications. The army was too slow in mobilizing reservists and, from the word go, neglected to adapt the order of forces to battlefield conditions. The high military command was prisoner of the conception that conventional war had had its day and Israel would never again be embroiled in a frontal conflict.

Although the prime minister had no experience in military matters and was a tyro policy-maker, he refused to consult competent advisers. The military was consequently assigned unrealistic missions. Olmert refused to correct this fault even when the war was clearly staggering forward without realistic goals.


Pep talk and jabs at critics


Olmert pursues one pep talk after another in an attempt to blot out the impact of these findings. He insists he has corrected all his mistakes, drawing the ire of large sections of the public.

His “You’ve never had it so good” speeches, which try and present the Lebanon War as a victory, hold up the peace and quiet reigning on the Lebanese border and point to the burgeoning economy, fall flat. He has tried to argue that the conflict improved Israel’s deterrent strength against Iran and its proxy, the Hizballah and that its leader Hassan Nasrallah, is now scared of his shadow.

His brush-off of an open letter from 50 company commanders who fought in the war demanding that he take responsibility for its defective conduct caused real anger. Wednesday, Jan. 23, Olmert did what no prime minister had dared to do before him: he publicly tossed aside a petition drawn up by the bereaved families of many of the 119 fallen soldiers and refused to read it.

None of this has lifited the prime minister’s record unpopularity. Last year, his approval rating stayed down at between 8 and 10 percent, blipping only briefly to 14 percent after Sept. 6, 2007, when Israel attacked a suspected nuclear plant in Syria.

His unpopularity was not alleviated by the Annapolis peace conference on Nov. 2007, or the US president George W. Bush‘s visit and enthusiastic gestures of support: “Stick with him, he’s a good man,” said Bush to the ministers.

Since then, Olmert and his team have tried many devices to cushion the deadly thud expected from Justice Winograd’s final word.

Some critics in his own Kadima Party, deemed capable of organizing effective opposition for toppling the prime minister, were offered soft berths as deputy ministers or chairmen of public corporations and commissions.

So were outspoken members of government coalition parties.

Punishments and threats thereof were also meted out to still the unrest within government ranks.

The Israeli Beitenu party leader, Avigdor Lieberman, who was introduced to Bush as the key to government stability, was allowed to quit the government with the rest of his faction of eleven Knesset members. The prime minister’s office dropped ominous hints that any ministers contemplating desertion in the face of the Lebanon report had better think again, because if Olmert falls, “he will take them all with him.”

Olmert clearly plans to leave no survivors if he crashes.


More desertions from Olmert’s coalition?


This hint was directed against two of his government’s linchpins, who are beginning to behave more like its weakest links: defense minister Ehud Barak, who heads the Labor party, and Industry and Employment Minister Eli Yishai, the ultra-religious Shas leader.

Before joining the government, Barak pledged to his party that he would resign if the Lebanon war report was negative.

Yishai threatens to pull the rug out from under the Olmert government if talks with the Palestinians touch on Jerusalem and its repartition.

Barak, a former prime minister, has also assumed the airs and graces of a co-premier, running affairs out of his Tel Aviv office in parallel with the prime minister’s office in Jerusalem. While waiting for his prediction of Olmert’s inevitable downfall to come about, Barak is taking control of important national military, intelligence, institutional and economic establishments, one by one.

The power struggle between the two has an American angle, DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s sources disclose: While Olmert builds his political strength on his excellent relations with President Bush, Barak, who was close to Bill Clinton during his presidency, is still associated with the former First Lady, Hillary Rodham Clinton, one of the Democratic hopefuls for president in the 2008 elections.

He regards the Olmert-Bush connection as a dying asset; his ties with the Clintons a valuable dowry for Israel’s future.

With a disaster building up on Israel’s southern border (see separate article on the Hamas coup), Olmert will have to come up with more than hollow pep talk and jabs at his critics to weather the slings and arrows from a commission of inquiry he himself appointed to probe the Lebanon War to stave off his moment of judgment.

The loss of Israel Beitenu’s 11 Knesset members has narrowed his government’s majority from 77 to 66 seats in the 120-member Knesset. The loss of the 12-deputy strong Shas would reduce it to a minority of 54.The departure of Labor’s 19-member faction would leave the Olmert government with an untenable 35 deputies and force an early election.

Olmert’s fate is very much held therefore in the defense minister’s hands.

He will have to continue his maneuvers if he wants to complete his full term of office until the next general election two years hence. For this, he needs not popularity but a stable government coalition.

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