Olmert: Should He Stay Or Should He Go?

Olmert hangs on despite harsh critiscism; little public support

February 9, 2009, 3:59 PM

JERUSALEM, Israel, Apr 30, 2007— -- All weekend photographers scrambled to snap pictures of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert before the Winograd Commission released the results of its investigation into last summer's Lebanon war. Yaron Ezrahi, a prominent political science professor at Hebrew University and author.

But not just any pictures. These were shots of Olmert burying his face in his hands, or looking skyward as if hoping for salvation from the heavens, or the moneyshot: tugging at a collar too tight about his.

Indeed the Winograd Commission's preliminary report was to put a political noose around Olmert and his government for its poor handling of last summer's war in Lebanon against the Shiite militia, Hezbollah. But no one expected the commission, which investigated the first five days of the war and the events leading up to it, to blame Olmert personally -- and harshly -- for what it called "severe failures."

The Lebanon war went badly. About 160 Israelis and more than 1000 Lebanese died in the conflict. Israel failed to destroy Hezbollah, failed to retrieve the two soldiers Hezbollah abducted, and failed to remove the rocket threat from northern Israeli towns.

The Commission found Olmert, his bungling Defense Minister Amir Peretz, and the former Chief of Staff Lt. Gen Dan Halutz, responsible for the war's failure. In fact the executive summary of the report uses the term "failures" 15 times -- all in a neat 21 pages.

Akiva Eldar a political commentator for Israel's paper of record Haaretz, put it this way. "The commissions' message was so very straight forward. It said [the government ministers] are a bunch of idiots. They go into a war without asking how the hell are we going to get out of it!"

The above has already become conventional wisdom in Israel, where Olmert's approval rating has plummeted to a mere 3% in recent polls.

But Olmert interrupted the evening news on the three Israeli networks with a taped apology-cum-acknowledgment.

There was no press gaggle, no dogging questions this time. A haggard-looking Olmert squarely faced the camera and said his government would immediately apply the lessons learned from the war and work to adopt the Commission's critiques. But he would not resign.

He then graciously thanked the Commission's five members for their "serious and thorough work."

Sniffing the danger beforehand, Olmert's flaks spent the weekend preparing a PR blitz to counter the report's damming findings -- it consists mostly of Olmert's detractors voicing their support for the prime minister in the opening days of the war. But the media here wasn't buying it. Israel's papers eulogized Olmert even before the result were read. The leading paper "Yediot Aharonot's" headline read: "[Olmert's] War of Survival." It's competition "Maariv" called it "His Life's Battle." And "Haaretz" said Olmert would be out of a job by summer.

Israel has fought seven major wars. Eldar says this Commission's results are almost as damning as the report that brought down the government of Golda Meir after the 1973 Yom Kippur War, which Israel won.

"Olmert is a walking political corpse. There is no way he can recover," agreed Ezrahi."There has never been such a focused indictment of a political leader for failure in war.The backlash could generate a public shift from depression to anger."

Olmert is a survivor. In fact Olmert and his coalition has weathered an astounding array of scandals.

His Justice Minister was found guilty of sexual assault earlier this year, an act committed minutes before the Olmert cabinet voted to go to war in Lebanon. His Finance Minister is being indicted for stealing money from the March of the Living, a program that sends Jewish children to visit Holocaust memorials in Europe. The country's chief of staff was forced to resign for his poor conduct during the war -- the most memorable act of folly being selling off his all mutual funds a few hours after the war started. And, the Attorney General is considering indicting Olmert for corruption during a previous stint as Minister for Industry and Trade. The list goes on.

But Olmert isn't one to take a hint. He was quoted by officials from his party saying, "I am not resigning. The last thing this country needs is elections."

The embattled Prime Minister isn't going anywhere agreed Eldar of Haaretz. For one thing, the Knesset, Israel's parliament and the only body that can depose him, fear elections.The backbenchers fear losing their seats, and the ministers fear losing their power says Eldar. And for most Israelis, he says, the thought of opposition leader, Likud's Benjamin Netanyahu running the country is not palatable.

There's a joke going around the halls of government these days: that Olmert tiptoes over to Netanyahu's house each night to make sure he's tucked in. He wouldn't want his best asset to catch a cold.

"Things will get worse for Olmert because he is a lame duck Prime Minister that cannot respond to diplomatic initiatives like the Saudi proposal for peace in the region," said Ezrahi.

The second part of the Winograd Commission's report is due in July. It will potentially be even more damaging.

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