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Olmert: Nothing to Lose By: Amir Taheri
New York Post | Tuesday, June 03, 2008


If history were to choose a sobriquet for Ehud Olmert, what would it be?

The accidental prime minister!

Two years ago, Olmert moved into the prime ministerial chair because his boss and mentor, Ariel Sharon, had suffered a stroke. This week or the week after, Olmert will be gone because most Israelis have had enough of his troubles with justice over a range of accusations, including bribery and money laundering.

Olmert may or may not be guilty of the charges, though they have won him the unofficial title of "Israel's Most Corrupt Politician," and that is really saying something.

Theoretically, Olmert should have been one of the best prepared of all those who acceded to Israel's premiership. He had an impressive CV, as Mayor of Jerusalem, holder of several Cabinet posts, and close aide to Yitzhak Shamir and Sharon. And yet, after two years as prime minister, Olmert gives the impression that he doesn't have a clue what the post is about. Even his admirers cannot cite a single significant contribution that he might have made on any major issue of domestic or foreign policy.

There are several reasons for Olmert's "do-nothing" style, not all of them due to his shortcomings.

Israel's peculiar political system, designed to fragment power, obliges any prime minister to spend at least half of his time holding an uneasy coalition together. Another 20 percent of the time is wasted on keeping an eye on friends who are always ready to stab you in the back.

Even then, Olmert could have done better. He didn't, because he lacks the stuff.

As a lawyer, he is so used to either-oring issues that he ends up confused and unable to pick an option.

Olmert is practitioner of what one might call the politics of appearance. He is more concerned about how things look rather than how they are. The latest example is his recent, almost childish, eagerness to open a dialogue with the Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad.

Olmert knows that Assad, at war against his own people in Syria, cannot offer Israel peace. And, yet, he agrees to dance with the Syrian only to avoid criticism from the " Realpolitik" cabal at home and abroad.

Olmert knows that Khomeinism, having seized control of Iran's immense resources, and acquired tentacles in Lebanon and Gaza, is the principal medium-term existential threat to Israel. And yet he has been pushing that dossier toward the Americans, who have been pushing it back toward him.

Olmert's half-heartedness was demonstrated with catastrophic results during the summer war against Iran's Hezbollah proxies in Lebanon two years ago.

Having assembled a massive force, Olmert didn't know what to do with it. In that conflict, Hezbollah suffered huge losses, enough to constitute total defeat in a conventional war. However, Olmert's decision to wave a big stick but settle for pinpricks enabled Tehran and its proxies to claim victory.

Almost all Israeli prime ministers are known for ideas about ways of settling the Palestinian issue. Remember the Begin Plan, the Allon Plan, the Sharon Plan?

There has never been an Olmert Plan.

Even when others have come up with ideas, such as the Arab League's proposal of 2006 or the revised version of President George W Bush's "roadmap" as presented at Anapolis last November, Olmert has failed to mobilize the degree of Israeli commitment and engagement that might have produced some concrete results. Instead, he has danced around the issues, asking for "clarifications," and sending conflicting signals in all directions.

Because the Israeli system puts the prime minister at the center of the nation's political life, it does matter whether the man, or woman, in charge is dynamic or lethargic.

Olmertism, to coin a phrase, means going through the motions of acting as prime minister but doing as little as you could get away with.

In a conversation we had in his office in Tel Aviv last year, Shimon Peres, now President of Israel, argued that, in this era of globalization, governments were becoming irrelevant. "The future is shaped by entrepreneurs with fresh ideas, especially the younger ones," he said. "The most that an intelligent government could do is to let them do it."

In that sense, Olmert has been the ideal prime minister.

He has buried Israel's old socialist ghosts and their claim to plan the economy and distribute its fruits. He has completed the dismantling of cumbersome structures designed in the 19th century.

The trouble is that, beyond economics, Israel faces problems like no other nation-state in the world. It is the only nation publicly threatened with annihilation by several powers, notably the Islamic Republic in Iran. Olmertism cannot cope with such challenges and threats. It is a passive, and, ultimately, self-serving style of politics in a country that would always need a strong dose of dynamism and idealism simply to survive.

Many Israelis feel that they need a new national strategy that looks beyond survival. This is why they think it is time to declare an end to Olmertism. There are many waiting in the queue to succeed Olmert: Foreign Minister Tzipi Livini, Defence Minister Ehud Barrack, and, of course, Likud leader Benyamin Netanyahu. They may have very different plans, but at least they have something to offer.




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