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Your time is up Mr Olmert
Date: Friday, January 4th, 2008
Publication: The Jewish Chronicle

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Is it too much to hope that Ehud Olmert’s time as Israeli prime minister might almost be up? In less than two weeks time, the Winograd Commission will release its final report into the handling of the Second Lebanon War in the summer of 2006.

Its interim report, which was released in April, directly blamed Olmert for deciding to go to war hastily, without clear goals and without detailed planning, and for failing to adapt his plans once these inadequacies became clear. “All of these,” the commission concluded, “add up to a serious failure in exercising judgment, responsibility and prudence.”

Recognising that he had lost all credibility, IDF Chief-of-Staff Dan Halutz had already resigned in January, but Olmert showed no such grace. He hung on, and has continued to hang on in defiance of polls that have consistently shown that he has the support of just 20 per cent — and at one point, just two per cent — of the population.

The report that will be issued in the week of January 13 promises to be just as harsh as the interim one. Although it will refrain from issuing personal recommendations about Olmert, it is likely he will again be found reckless and irresponsible, a dangerous man to have at the helm. Yet this week, the prime minister vowed to continue in office no matter what Winograd concludes.

He will “find a time and a place” to respond to the commission’s findings, he said. Knesset members are so worried he will brush off responsibility for the war yet again that 50 of them signed a petition trying to force him to attend a parliamentary debate on the subject.

How has he managed this incredible feat of survival? Olmert is, first of all, utterly shameless. Only a man without any sense of honour could ignore such a damning report as well as the overwhelming evidence that he has lost the confidence of the people.

There is also no obvious successor. In his own party, Kadima, only foreign minister Tzipi Livni is seen as leadership material. Binyamin Netanyahu in the Likud and Ehud Barak in Labour are both failed former prime ministers. There’s no real enthusiasm for any of them.

Then there is the cynicism of Olmert’s coalition partners, who realise that any change at the top will entail a reshuffle of the government or even an election, and are afraid of losing their seats.

But it’s easy to blame Olmert and a bunch of political hacks. The party really to blame for Olmert’s ongoing survival is the Israeli people. Speak to most Israelis and they will tell you, in no uncertain terms, how much they despise Olmert and how disgraceful it is that he is still in power. Following the publication of the interim Winograd report, there was a demonstration of 200,000 people in Rabin Square in Tel Aviv, calling for Olmert’s resignation. But since then, nothing.

When a sitting PM polls below 20 per cent for months on end, shouldn’t there be demonstrations outside his office every day? Wouldn’t you expect petitions to be circulating? Shouldn’t the letters columns of the newspapers be full of calls for Olmert to go?

In the past — during the throes of the Oslo process for example, or when Israel disengaged from the Gaza Strip — Israelis have shown themselves more than ready to employ just such tactics. This time, however, public anger against Olmert has failed to translate into a practical drive to get rid of him. Some have suggested this is due to general political fatigue, others that Israelis are willing to put up with him because they perceive him as a lame duck. But what it really suggests is that the only real cause Israelis are willing to take to the streets for is land. When it comes to good governance, responsible leadership, even their own safety, they are ultimately apathetic.

That’s why Ariel Sharon could stay in office despite ongoing investigations into corruption (until he decided to evacuate the Jews from Gaza). That’s why the current government has survived despite an ongoing barrage of rockets from the Gaza Strip paralysing the town of Sderot; a teachers’ strike which left Israel’s children without education for more than 60 days; and the failure to secure the release of a 21-year-old soldier, Gilad Shalit, from captivity with Hamas.

The price has been a complete breakdown of Israel’s political culture and chronic mismanagement of the country’s interests.

In two weeks’ time, the day after the publication of the Winograd report, Olmert will still be shameless and the Knesset members will still be driven by cynicism. It seems too much to expect either party to voluntarily bring about a change at the top. But the people of Israel can do it, if only they act on their complaints, and get out on the streets.

Failure to do so is as good as actively endorsing Olmert.

Miriam Shaviv is the Comment and Letters editor of the JC

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