With Protests over War Growing, Olmert Fights to Keep Grip on Power

As protests continue against the government’s conduct of the war against Hezbollah, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is fighting a rear-guard action to stay in power. In an impassioned speech Monday night in Haifa, Olmert announced the establishment of three lesser panels rather than the full-fledged state commission of inquiry into the war that his critics are demanding. He said a government-appointed panel under a former Mossad chief, Nahum Admoni, would look into the government’s decision-making, the army would examine itself and the state comptroller would focus on shortcomings during the war on the home front.

None of the three panels has anything like the power of a state commission, which can subpoena witnesses, impound evidence and recommend firings or resignations of top officials.

In what sounded like a second line of defense, Olmert insisted that the results of the war are likely to prove far more favorable to Israel than initially thought.

Still, polls show a dramatic drop in public support for Olmert and his government: According to a poll last Friday by the respected Dahaf Institute, 63 percent of Israelis would like to see Olmert resign. Demands for a full-fledged state commission of inquiry are unlikely to abate.

The differences between the two types of investigative panels are huge. The prime minister chooses the members of a government commission, defines their mandate and decides which parts if any of their final report to publish. A state commission is set up by the chief justice of the Supreme Court, who chooses its members and defines the brief, and the commission itself decides what to publish.

After the 1973 Yom Kippur War and the first Lebanon War in 1982, state commissions of inquiry were set up. In both cases, their impact on the governments of the day was enormous.

Prime Minister Golda Meir retired from politics in the wake of the Agranat Commission after the Yom Kippur War, and the findings of the Kahan Commission in 1983 led to Ariel Sharon’s ouster as defense minister after the Lebanon War.

Olmert argued that a government-appointed panel will be less time-consuming and better suited to actually rectifying problems in the political-military decision-making process. He claimed that a full-fledged state commission would paralyze top political and military leaders just when they should be preparing for new threats — especially from “Iran’s Israel-hating president.”

Olmert’s critics counter that the investigation he has in mind lacks an overarching integrative framework, will have no public credibility and will be open to charges of whitewash. Protestors, who have been camped outside the Prime Minister’s Office for more than a week, called the government committee a “joke” and a “fig leaf.”

The protesters, who show no sign of backing off, are divided into two camps: One group of IDF reservists has linked up with right-wing settler groups to demand the immediate resignations of Olmert, Defense Minister Amir Peretz and army Chief of Staff Dan Halutz. The other continues to work with the Movement for Quality Government for the establishment of a state commission of inquiry.

Neither has attracted large masses of Israelis. Left-wingers complain about the predominance of right-wing settlers — who, they say, are trying to get even with Olmert for last summer’s evacuation of Gaza settlements and seek to change the government by populist outcry rather than elections.

But the protests reflect widespread anger and disappointment over the execution of the war. The Dahaf poll shows that most Israelis want to see Olmert, Peretz and Halutz ousted. It also shows that if elections were held today, Olmert’s Kadima party would fall from 29 Knesset seats to 17, Labor would fall from 19 to 11, the Likud would rise from 12 to 20 and Avigdor Lieberman’s hawkish Yisrael Beiteinu would rise from 11 to 17.

In other words, if elections were held today, the center-left nucleus of Olmert’s coalition would plummet from a combined 48 seats to 28, and right-wing opposition parties such as Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu would soar from 23 seats to 37.

Pundits say that precisely because they’d be almost certain to lose power, the coalition parties will do all they can to stave off an early ballot — and, for now, they have the Knesset numbers to do so.

Even if Olmert does gain some time, Kadima’s problems could prove to be more than a passing phase. When Ariel Sharon broke away from the Likud to form Kadima last November, he was the nation’s undisputed leader and his unilateral disengagement agenda was widely accepted as the best way forward on the Palestinian track.

Now the party has a leader under fire and, in West Bank disengagement, a policy discredited by rockets from Lebanon and Gaza. Further complicating the prime minister’s tenuous hold on power are recent charges by the state comptroller that, as minister of trade and industry in Sharon’s government, Olmert gave party cronies ministerial jobs in violation of civil service procedure.

To survive, Kadima will have to come up with a new and convincing agenda, soon. Olmert is talking about a national effort to rebuild northern Israel and the western Negev, the areas that have suffered the most from rocket attacks. He also hopes that stabilization of the situation in the North and a possible breakthrough in relations with the Lebanese government will turn the tables in his favor.

Much will depend on the way U.N. Security Resolution 1701, which brought the fighting in Lebanon to a halt, is implemented. The signs on the ground so far are mixed.

On the positive side, European countries have pledged 7,000 troops and say they’re determined to prevent Hezbollah from operating as an armed militia in southern Lebanon. But they apparently do not intend to disarm the terrorist group and it’s not clear if they’ll monitor the Syria-Lebanon border in an effort to prevent Iran and Syria from rearming their proxy.

Still, the Lebanese army seems serious about taking charge of the South, and Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah says he won’t interfere with the deployment of the Lebanese or U.N. forces. Moreover, in an interview Sunday, the often boastful Nasrallah displayed an unusual degree of contrition.

“Had I thought that Israel would react as forcefully as it did, I would not have ordered the kidnapping of the two soldiers” that set off the monthlong war, he admitted.

Even if positive changes do occur, however, will they be enough to alter Israeli perceptions of the war and its conduct — with all that could mean for Ehud Olmert’s political future?

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