Wednesday, August 16, 2006
While each of these criticisms tears Olmert a new one in its own unique location -- not all of which I agree with -- I nevertheless concur with the overwhelming conclusion: the Olmert government has not done the job. Olmert portrays to the world, to the Israel-hating Arab world surrounding us, an Israel that is not entirely sure how to defend itself. And so as the calls for a change of government begin, I have to reluctantly admit that sounds like it might be a good idea. I say reluctantly because you really don't want to change airplanes mid-flight, unless you absolutely have to. And make no mistake, shaky cease-fire or not, this is one conflict that is definitely still mid-flight. Nevertheless, its sometimes better to jump and hope that thing on your back is a parachute, rather than wait for the sputtering plane you're presently plummeting in suddenly ceases plummeting.
What's wrong with Olmert? What could possibly be so bad? Regardless of Olmert's hesitancy to use it, Israel's enemies still know that we have great military might.
The problem is that, as with the United States, it's not our military might that jihadists like Nasrallah are questioning so much as our will, and those questions begin at the top. The Prime Minister's on-again off-again flirtation with the use of sufficient force was something maybe only two men could fully appreciate -- Nasrallah, because he was largely the beneficiary, and John Kerry, who would have to admire a man with the nuance required to send in the troops before he stops them but who really meant to use them all along unless there was a cease-fire but for sure he'd use them better next time.
For the moment, a majority of Israelis seem open to the idea of early elections and a new government; however, no matter how much I agree, I'm not sure elections are going to happen just because a majority is open to them. Sure, there are calls for Olmert to do the right thing and step down. Others plead with the Knesset to pull down Olmert's government by passing a no-confidence motion -- which would require at least some of Olmert's coalition members to jeapordize their own place at the government trough in order to reach the required majority of 61 out of 120 possible votes. Now there is even an online petition calling for new elections.
Despite all this, what must be remembered when calling for Olmert's replacement is that before a new government can take over, the previous government's fingers must first be pried from the reins of power. In order for the government to get the boot, Olmert or other parties will have to somehow believe they would benefit from immediate elections.
So which party in Olmert's coalition is going to bring the coalition down? Who in the coalition thinks the electorate would reward them if new elections were to happen tomorrow? In Israel it is not uncommon for parties to threaten the coalition over issues like transfer payments to the poor or whether businesses may open on Shabbat, believing that making a scene or even bringing down the government will get them a larger mandate in new elections from voters who care about those issues.
That is not the situation today. Any new elections would be about one thing and one thing only: the ability to lead Israel through this time of war, as Iran's nuclear ambitions are coming to fruition. Which party in Olmert's coalition would stand to gain anything in new elections in such an environment?
- Kadima (29 seats): New elections would probably vaporize Olmert's party, Kadima. It was a brand new party elected only on Ariel Sharon's comatose coattails, and those were getting shorter every day even before the recent conflict caused so many to question Olmert. So don't look to Kadima to take one for the team, since the unemployment benefits for rejected politicians aren't really all that great.
- Labor (19): Labor may not be quite as bad off, but they can't expect voters to reward them for having placed their party head, union leader Amir Peretz, into the Defense Ministry to run a war as if it was a garbage strike. Peretz, used to the quick capitulation of Israel's budget directors and treasury officials to each of his many strikes, seemed shocked that Hizballah didn't surrender immediately the moment he made it clear he planned, as usual in his successful strikes, on doing basicallly nothing. Hey, it always worked before.
- Gil Pensioners (7): The retirees? Doubtful. First of all, they have to fear that they could lose some fraction of their previous voters, the source of the seven seats they now hold, just due to natural causes alone. But also since elections would be held while voters are in an existential, "serious-issue" mood, my guess is the single-issue Pensioners party would shrink if not disappear -- and I'm guessing the Pensioners will guess the same thing and sit tight.
- Shas (12): The only party I can even imagine bolting is Shas, a religious party whose focus is on social issues. Shas is a party that has successfully strongarmed coalitions in the past to help sweeten its community's pot. Nevertheless, in an election in which Israelis look for resolute leadership during military conflict, Shas certainly wouldn't gain seats and could easily lose some. They might conceivably believe they could wrangle a better post-election deal with an alternate coalition, but surely they recognize how much easier it is to eat the bird in their hand rather than the birds in the bush, even if there are two of them and they're kosher.
I'm not generally a political horseracing handicapper, and I may be analyzing this wrong, but it looks to me like this government could limp along under heavy criticism for a year, maybe two before deciding it's had enough. The problem is that a lot of things can happen in those two years.
So what else can be done if Olmert's government won't be brought down?
There is still a chance that Olmert can be convinced he needs a new wartime coalition. When the coalition was formed, Olmert was making calculations based on who would support his disengagement plans. Now, with Qassams still flying out of disengaged Gaza, with Hizballah's Katyushas idling momentarily between rocket runs at Israel's north, and best of all with Ahmadinejad's approaching atomic arsenal threatening Israel's very existence, it is time for a wartime coalition more concerned with protecting Israel than giving it away.
While Olmert may not be convinced to step down himself, he should reconsider what he gets from Labor and Amir Peretz as his defense minister -- since Labor's support for disengagement and further, now-inconceivable West Bank withdrawals, once thought an asset by Olmert, is now all but worthless in practice. He should reconsider how important it is to keep militarily qualified right-wingers out of the coalition just to protect further West Bank disengagements that it is now clear would be resisted by massive numbers of Israelis, not just for ideological reasons, but out of real concern for Palestinian missiles that would suddenly threaten all of their lives, turning all of Israel into Sderot or Nahariya.
While we can differ over who is qualified for exactly what roles, today's opposition boasts of a number of candidates for top ministerial spots -- especially Peretz's defense post -- like Effie Eitam, or Binyamin Netanyahu. I'm sure there are others, and I'm not necessarily making specific recommendations. But it is hard to believe Amir Peretz is the best possible defense minister for an embattled State of Israel.
I would suggest Prime Minister Olmert shuffle his coalition and cabinet, before it is too late. The clock is already ticking.