Larger concerns should supercede Olmert’s problems


However damning Judge Eliyahu Winograd’s report may be regarding Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s conduct of the second war in Lebanon, it would be far more damning and destructive for Israel if the political leaders seeking to replace Mr. Olmert lose sight of Israel’s ultimate national interests. The situation in the Middle East is deteriorating to a dangerous degree, while the threats to Israel’s national security by extreme radical groups are increasing. This is no time for the nation’s leaders to settle political scores.

They must seek a national consensus not only in order to deal with present dangers but to seize the opportunity that the Arab Initiative presents for achieving a comprehensive peace.

It is most unfortunate that many Israeli political leaders, among them Likud’s Benjamin Netanyahu, place personal ambitions above the nation’s welfare. Those Israeli politicians who smell blood and seek to oust Olmert presume that they can do the job better. Maybe, they can, but Netanyahu, for one, is still remembered for his tenure as Prime Minister between 1996 and 1999, when he scuttled the peace process with the help of then-PLO Chairman Yasir Arafat. What Israel wants most now is not more hypocrisy but a leader with vision and fortitude who can articulate a new strategy as it faces an historic crossroad.

I do not know who can come forward today and claim the mantle of David Ben-Gurion or Menachem Begin. Olmert may neither be better nor worse than the many politicians who want to throw him to the dogs. Still, the current debate in Israel should not focus on his and Amir Peretz’s sins — their mistakes and errors have been fully documented — but on what course Israel should chart to confront the challenges of war and peace.

It has been more than a month since the Arab Initiative was reintroduced at the Arab League meeting in Riyadh. Thus far, the Olmert government has found only “some” positive aspects in the Initiative. The question that must be posed to Olmert and to other aspirants to his office is: How are we going to respond to the Initiative, and how might Israel capitalize on the changing political winds in the region? Since Lebanon, the Olmert government has acted as if paralyzed. If Mr. Olmert intends to stay on the job, he should face his nation, stop defending himself, admit to his mistakes, and get on with the business of governing. He enjoys an overwhelming majority in the Knesset, and so far no coalition partner has been in a hurry to defect. Given this situation, it is possible that he can vindicate himself by acting with clarity, decisiveness, and vision.

He must consult with the best political and military minds in the country and not allow the failure in Lebanon to precipitate a greater failure by losing the momentous opportunity that has now been presented to make a comprehensive peace. This means that regardless of his own political fortunes, he must embrace the Initiative. If he advances the peace process, the people will forgive him for his past mistakes because, tired of the never-ending bloodshed, they are thirsty for progress. And if the peace negotiation fails to deliver peace with security, no one will blame him for not trying.

But if he calls now for early elections, this will inadvertently focus the public discourse on what went wrong in Lebanon rather than on what must be done to move the peace process forward. Yes, past experiences are instructive, and the mistakes that caused the debacle in Lebanon must be corrected. Israel, however, cannot just be better prepared for the next war and to crush Hezbollah if it becomes necessary.

The focus should be on preventing the next war from even happening. By all military accounts, Hezbollah lost the war in Lebanon and, as the extent of destruction from Israeli bombardments became clear; it lost as well even the perception people had of its emerging victorious. Neither Hamas nor Hezbollah existed before the 1967 Six Day War, and surely no one can say with a straight face that the occupation of southern Lebanon and the West Bank and Gaza have not contributed to the creation of these militant groups. The solution to the conflict with Lebanon does not lie in crushing Hezbollah. It lies in making peace with Syria and Lebanon, and thus marginalizing Hezbollah completely.

It is natural and healthy in any genuine democracy to have a full-scale public debate on important national issues, especially issues that involve the utmost national security concerns. But once the political debate goes full circle, the question for most Israelis will be: Where do we go from here? The last thing the Israeli public needs is demagoguery and false expectations.

Rather, they must demand from whoever their leader is clarity of purpose and a clear strategy for achieving a comprehensive peace. Anything short of that will be an invitation to begin the next war, making the Winogard Interim Report simply be a sad chapter in the annals of Israel’s history.

Alon Ben-Meir is a professor of international relations at the Center for Global Affairs at New York University. He teaches courses on international negotiation and Middle Eastern studies.