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Decision Time for Olmert By: Michael Widlanski
FrontPageMagazine.com | Tuesday, April 10, 2007

"I am not a very popular prime minister,” said Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert during a recent appearance in front of his Kadima Party. Olmert, currently the target of several corruption investigations, has seen his popularity plummet in recent months, with his woefully low approval ratings -- just three percent of Israelis approve of Olmert’s job performance -- making him the most unpopular leader in Israel’s history. And as the domestic popularity of Israel’s government reaches record lows, evidence mounts that Olmert may be forced or tempted to make dramatic political moves in the near future.

Consider the latest signs. For the first time since last summer's Hezbollah conflict, Israeli troops last week fired into Lebanon in response to suspicious movements along the northern frontier. Also last week, Israeli troops entered Gaza to kill or capture members of a three-man squad planting bombs along the border fence. That marks the first time since last November’s “ceasefire” with the Palestinians that Israel has entered the territory. In a related military action, Israeli soldiers fired into Gaza at Palestinian militants as they were preparing to launch rockets into Israel. More than 200 rockets have been fired at Israel since November and over 1,200 rockets since the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza in mid-2005, but this was the first retaliatory move by Israel since last fall.

A series of diplomatic feints further attests to Olmert’s new strategy. In a string of weekend interviews to coincide with the Passover holiday, Olmert issued a flurry of contradictory signals. Olmert rebuffed the Arab summit's "peace plan," but offered to go to Saudi Arabia to hold talks with its primary author, King Abdullah. Olmert allowed U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to take a message of peace to Syrian President Assad, but then issued a statement that Speaker Pelosi had not understood what Olmert really meant. And Olmert reiterated that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas repeatedly “betrayed” him by failing to keep his promises, while also promising to meet with him on a regular basis.

Arab leaders, keenly aware of the prime minister’s political troubles, have shown little respect for his government. Muhammad Dahlan, the national security advisor to Abbas and the “strongman” of Gaza, repeatedly poked fun at Olmert last week. “Mr. Olmert says that President Mahmoud Abbas has betrayed him,” Dahlan remarked in a lengthy interview on PA official television. “But how has he betrayed him? Do we have a military or strategic alliance with [Olmert]?”

Some of Olmert’s strongest supporters in the Israeli press -- columnists and commentators at newspapers Yediot Aharonot and Ha’aretz and Voice of Israel radio and Channel Two television -- have made similar claims, calling on the beleaguered prime minister to make dramatic peace overtures to Syria, the Palestinians or Saudi Arabia in order to restore his popularity. Yoel Marcus of Ha’aretz, for example, has suggested that Olmert ignore the Bush administration’s opposition to talks with Syria.

Opposition to such talks has come from military leaders, who have been urging a stronger stand against terrorism. IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi has been telling his officers and members of the Israeli Knesset that he believes Israel will have no choice but to make a major military move into Gaza, where IDF intelligence says the PA and Hamas have amassed 31 tons of high-grade explosives and thousands of automatic weapons. Brig. Gen. (Res.) Fogel, the former Israeli military commander of Gaza, has said that Israel would have to act within two months because Hamas and Fatah are building tunnels and trenches, like Hezbollah in Lebanon. His comments were echoed by Maj. Gen. Yoav Galant, current commander of Israel’s southern front. “They imported 30 tons of explosives into Gaza this year,” declared Galant, adding, “and this is not something to be used against the Fatah, but rather against Israel. This is to be used to create a different equation with Israel.” Both Galant and Fogel noted the increasing evidence of Iranian training and even personal direction of Palestinian gunmen. “I think there no choice but to go to war,” asserted Gen. Fogel.

Olmert has not exactly followed their advice. On the contrary, in the last few weeks, he has approved sending, via Egypt and Jordan, an additional 5,000 automatic weapons to the forces of Mahmoud Abbas, as a way of countering the growing strength of the forces of the Hamas-led Palestinian Authority. This move has been supported by Defense Minister Amir Peretz, whose one-percent approval ratings are even lower than Olmert’s, and it is clear that Peretz is also fighting for his political life, facing a Labor Party primary next month. As a way of appealing to dovish and Arab elements in Labor, Peretz has repeatedly announced plans to dismantle houses or outposts built by Israeli settlers, including a house in Hebron that, as even Peretz admits, is legally owned by the settlers.

Both Olmert and Peretz are fearful of the upcoming interim report by a commission of inquiry into last summer’s war in Lebanon, even though the commission was hand-picked by Olmert and Peretz. At the same time, it is clear that Israeli army has not waited for the report, and its infantry, armor and engineering units have redoubled their training schedules, some of them holding the first real brigade and battalion-strength exercises in six years—both near Gaza and Lebanon. Whatever lies in store for Olmert, it is clear that many in Israel have already written off the prime minister.

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Dr. Michael Widlanski is a specialist in Arab politics and communication whose doctorate dealt with the Palestinian broadcast media. He is a former reporter, correspondent and editor, respectively, at The New York Times, The Cox Newspapers-Atlanta Constitution, and The Jerusalem Post. He has also served as a special advisor to Israeli delegations to peace talks in 1991-1992 and as Strategic Affairs Advisor to the Ministry of Public Security, editing secret PLO Archives captured in Jerusalem.

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