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If Israel Lost the War... By: Michael Widlanski
FrontPageMagazine.com | Thursday, August 17, 2006

It would be funny if it were not so sad

Turning a golden calf into a sacred cow


As the combat has trailed off in Lebanon, it can now be said that whatever Israel’s losses, it has discovered a great comedic genius:  Prime Minister Ehud Olmert—a man who sent his army to war, but only after tying its shoelaces together.


In fact, Olmert is more than a performing comedic artist; he is also a director of a war cabinet that encompasses a veritable Shakespearean company performing a seemingly endless comedy of errors.


Olmert’s defense minister, Amir Peretz, offered to make peace with Syria scarcely hours after a ceasefire in a war promoted by Syrian rockets and propaganda. Only a few hours later, Syrian president Bashar Assad was so impressed by the peace offer that he again threatened to go to war directly against Israel.


"Every war creates opportunities for a broadened political process ... We must establish talks with Lebanon and prepare the conditions for a dialogue with Syria," Peretz said.


A day later Defense Minister Peretz charged that Israel’s top army commanders had kept him in the dark about the real situation in Lebanon before the war, because they never told him that Hizballah had so many rockets.


Peretz named his own advisor to examine charges by hundreds of Israeli reserve soldiers that they were also kept in the dark—not given night-vision equipment, battle vests, laser-finders and even food—before going to Lebanon.


But Peretz was not the only associate in Olmert’s inner circle who continues his comic antics.  


Olmert’s army chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Dan Halutz, it was discovered, called his stock broker and sold off all his stock portfolio only minutes after Israel secretly decided to go to war. And when much of the country gasped at this seeming insensitivity and possible violation of “insider trading,” the general lectured the country on his ethics.


But it would only be fair to acknowledge that these men are inspired by Olmert himself.


The cigar-smoking Olmert exhibits a wit that is a cross between Winston Churchill and Groucho Marx, a sense of timing and history that is a blend of Jimmy Carter and Woody Allen, and a slap-stick approach to his army and cabinet that recalls The Three Stooges.


When the UN decided last week that the Israel-Hezbollah ceasefire would begin at 05:00 Monday GMT, Olmert and his colleagues forgot London “summer time” and GMT are not the same, stopping Israeli fire an hour early.


But this was nothing compared to Olmert’s command performance: starting the full land war a month late, a month after the kidnapping of two Israeli soldiers and the launching of 4000-5,000 rockets and mortars against Israeli cities.


On July 16, a red-faced Olmert told Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, “We will seek out every terrorist base, and we will strike at every terrorist,” but then he did exactly the opposite, approving only limited air attacks.


Throughout the war, Olmert kept a tremendous comedic tension, steadfastly refusing to call the combat situation a war. That would have been too easy. In fact, Olmert, faced with hundreds of thousands of dislocated Israelis, refused the easy applause line of calling the situation “an emergency” and sending aid to people whose houses were destroyed by Hezbollah rockets.


Olmert then complained (Aug. 8) that the army had not presented him with any real operative combat plans. That night Olmert allowed his cabinet to approve a slightly larger military operation, but reversed himself the following day, saying he was delaying its implementation.


But Olmert’s comedic approach is more than just a matter of timing, encompassing breath-taking identity switches, sometimes turning a golden calf into a sacred cow.


“We are a stiff-necked people,” bragged Olmert, apparently oblivious to the fact that he was re-writing God’s rebuke of the Children of Israel (for worshipping a golden calf) into a blessing and even a planned chart of his own future conduct.  


It was a bold effort for Olmert who had avoided the Israeli public and the press, according to the advice of his top press handlers.


“He will talk to the people when he has something to say,” observed Tal Zilberstein, an Olmert advisor.  


In a speech to the public on July 31, Olmert promised “we will not stop fighting until there is peace in our land.”  He promised that Israel would refuse to live under a “menacing cloud of missiles.”


Just when the audience thought Olmert was trying to recall the “blood and sweat and tears” of Churchill exhorting his countrymen to weeks and months of travail under the Nazi rocket menace, Israel’s prime minister morphed into something else.


The next day, Israel’s top stand-up comedian decided he had no need for more weeks and months because the war had been won overnight: “today, the State of Israel is succeeding in the campaign and making impressive gains, which may be unprecedented.”


Olmert then redefined the meaning of success, unprecedented success.


“Not for one moment, from the first  day, did the Minister of Defense, I, the Government of Israel nor - it must be said in its favor - the Defense Forces promise the people of Israel that, at the end of this campaign, there would not be any missiles in firing range of the State of Israel.” declared Olmert.


“No one can promise such a thing when there are missiles with a range of over 250 kilometers,” wryly observed Israel’s leader, after apparently reviewing his rocket notes. 


It was probably the best rendition of the “hold-me-back” and “I’ll-show-him-who’s boss” routines since Woody Allen’s nebbish-nerd in “Play It Again Sam” of 1972:


“I snapped my chin down onto some guy's fist and hit another one in the knee with my nose.”


To be fair, Olmert’s performance has been consistently more sophisticated than Woody Allen’s, involving a full range of emotions and artistic technique.


As one watches and listens to Olmert, one is impressed with his modesty and the way he has been graciously trying to share his success and the stage with Israeli Defense Minister Amir Peretz and Israeli Army (IDF) Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Dan Halutz.


Like other great comedians, Olmert is both an actor and a director, and as a director, Olmert made several wonderful comedic decisions in casting.


Olmert brought us Foreign Minister Tzippy Livni, who can barely speak in English, and whose idea of bold Israeli public relations is to toss her blond hair in the direction of a visiting European diplomat and to regale listeners with tales of her close ties to Condoleeza Rice.


Livni said that the UN ceasefire resolution was a tremendous victory for Israel, especially because UN troops—which were so successful in stopping genocide in Rwanda and the Balkans—will now protect Israel’s northern border.


Livni does not live in Haifa, Tiberias, Safed, Nahariya, Qiryat Shmona or any other town or village that has been pockmarked by Hezbollah rockets. That could be why she said she was not particularly worried that the UN resolution did not mention disarming Hezbollah.


Still, as a casting decision, Olmert outdid himself when he cast as Defense Minister, Amir Peretz—a  Charlie Chaplin-like figure with an outsized mustache and spastic hand motions.


“I will show Nasserallah who Peretz is,” exclaimed Peretz as the war began, strutting around and bragging, barely able to control the jerky movements of his elbows.


Many in Israel say that Olmert’s discovery of Peretz has been a stroke of inventive genius, taking Peretz, a labor leader with no government experience whatsoever and virtually no security background and giving him the most important ministry in his government.


However, there are some who feel that Olmert has not always delivered his lines well.


Olmert’s critics exclaim that the Israeli prime minister was more than “a tad” wrong in claiming  “unprecedented success”  in fighting the forces of evil—Iran and Hizballah—and rescuing kidnapped Israeli soldiers.


There is at least one other example of similar—even award-winning—success: US President Jimmy Carter, who was rejected by the American audience but who won international acclaim and a Nobel Peace Prize 25 years after he left office.   


It is worth recalling Jimmy Carter’s success with the Iranian ayatollahs in the 1970’s:


--First undermining the Shah of Iran, with concern for human rights, and then bringing to power Ruhollah Khomeini and the other Iranian "human rights" activists.


--Then failing to use force or threats to get the release of 400 Americans taken hostage by the Iranian human rights activists and “protesters.”


--And finally, micro-managing and totally botching the military rescue raid to free the American hostages.


Moreover, President Carter has gone on to become an expert certifier of would-be democratic leaders such as Yasser Arafat and Fidel Castro, and one is not likely to see Olmert achieve such comedic heights.


But as great as Carter’s achievements have been, experts here believe that Ehud Olmert will surpass Carter as a comical chief executive.


This week, after 160 Israelis were killed and a third of the country was badly damaged, Olmert has been pressed to agree to a commission of inquiry into his handling of the war. It was then that Olmert came up with his finest comedy:


“There have been some problems, but we will investigate them ourselves.”


Israelis are laughing themselves to death.


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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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