Olmert’s Troubles Test Israel’s Democracy


Troubles seem to mount by the minute for Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. Less than a year after he succeeded his larger-than-life predecessor Ariel Sharon when the latter was felled by a stroke, Olmert, who had attempted to continue the centrist values promoted by Sharon’s Kadima Party, is barely clinging to his office. Early this month, an Israeli commission of inquiry excoriated Olmert for “severe failures” in last summer’s war against the Lebanese terrorist group Hezbollah; the response, according to reporting in The New York Times by Steve Erlanger and Isabel Kershner set off “a furious debate on whether he should remain in office.”

As this edition of the St. Louis Jewish Light goes to press, Olmert has thus far refused to resign even after his own foreign minister, Tzipi Livni called on him to step down, and more than 100,000 Israelis, from the left and right gathered in Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square last Thursday to urge Olmert and his government to resign. Not surprisingly, Benjamin (Bibi) Netanyahu, the former Likud Party prime minister, also joined the long list of those calling upon Olmert to step down.

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At last week’s Tel Aviv rally, Uzi Dayan, a retired Israeli major general and former national security adviser, who now heads a centrist political group called Tafnit, or Turning Point, which lobbies for security and against corruption, said, “There are moments when you have to say ‘Enough.’ We are turning to the leadership and saying ‘Enough.'” Even before the issuance of the scathing commission report citing Olmert for his failure of leadership in last summer’s indecisive 33-day war against Hezbollah in Lebanon, his approval ratings had fallen to the single digits, ranging from an incredible 3-4 percent. When a U.S. president’s approval ratings fall into the 30s or below, it is considered shocking, and no president, including Nixon after Watergate, has ever fallen to the low ratings of Ehud Olmert.

The creation by Sharon and Olmert of the Kadima (Hebrew for Forward) Party was intended to end decades of political polarization in Israel, when narrow far-left and far-right governments, headed by either the liberal Labor Party or conservative Likud Party, could not freely negotiate without risk that their governments would fall to no-confidence votes. A “wall-to-wall” coalition, another version of the historic “governments of national unity” was the alternative offered by Kadima to bring together the peace goals of the left with the security concerns of the right. Olmert has never had the charisma or forceful personality of Ariel Sharon, but was considered to be a major intellectual influence responsible for transforming Sharon from the “father of the settlement movement,” to the prime minister who was able to successfully withdraw all 8,500 Jewish settlers from all 21 settlements in the Gaza Strip. When Sharon was removed from the picture because of his massive stroke, Olmert was thrust into leadership overnight, and the tasks he faced have proved at times to be more than he could handle. When the war in Lebanon broke out, he lacked Sharon’s military expertise and track record, and his hesitancy was given much of the blame for the failure of the Israel Defense Forces to defeat Hezbollah in the 33-day war, or even to obtain the release of the kidnapped Israeli soldiers, the event which triggered the war.

One of the reasons that Olmert has not yet resigned (though that could happen at any moment if the demands keep escalating) is that there might not be a popular alternative at this point. Netanyahu’s tenure as prime minister was marked by divisiveness, and Shimon Peres, the legendary Labor Party elder statesman, has never achieved pesonal vote-getting ability to match his considerable political and diplomatic skills. It must also be recalled that amazing comebacks have often taken place in democracies before. In 1962, when Richard Nixon lost the race for governor of California, he was considered finished for good; six years later, Nixon defeated Hubert Humphrey for president. Winston Churchill, the great British prime minister who led his nation through World War II, was turned out of office in 1945 by a war-weary British public, only to come back as prime minister in 195l. Ariel Sharon himself was considered finished politically after a commission of inquiry faulted his decisions and actions in the 1982 Lebanon War, only to stage his own remarkable comeback.

Whether or not Olmert will become a “comeback kid” or be relegated for now to the sidelines, the public calls for his resignation are proof that Israel’s democracy remains alive and well, and we take note of the fact that even the anti-Olmert rally in Tel Aviv ended with the 100,000 attending joining to sing Israel’s national anthem, Hatikvah, which means “The Hope.”