Will Loose Lips Sink Olmert?


Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert this week won German support for sanctions against Iran aimed at ending its nuclear program and flew to Italy to receive similar support there. But at home the buzz was all about his apparent acknowledgement of Israel’s own nuclear arsenal.

In his comments to the German press, Olmert appeared to list Israel along with the United States and Russia as countries having nuclear weapons. The prime minister’s office said later that Olmert had only listed Israel as one of several countries responsible for nuclear weapons, not necessarily countries that have them.

But few accepted that spin and Olmert was criticized by politicians across the political spectrum for becoming the first sitting prime minister to openly admit Israel’s possession of nuclear weapons, something the country has never formally acknowledged.

Olmert’s own coalition chairman, Avigdor Yitzhaki, was quoted as saying Olmert “made a mistake and needs to be careful.” And another member of his Kadima Party, Marina Solodkin, reportedly said Olmert “did damage to himself because he didn’t think.”

Yaron Ezrahi, a political science professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, said Olmert’s gaffe was a “sign of incompetence, which seems to repeat itself every once in a while. Only last week he made a faux pas about the kidnapped soldiers in the north, implying they were dead while the working premise of the army is that they are alive until proven otherwise.”

“The prime minister has not internalized that he speaks for the state and not for himself,” Ezrahi added. “He is too spontaneous and not sufficiently prepared.”

Uzi Landau, a former Israeli minister from Likud Party, said here this week that Olmert’s low poll ratings make it “quite clear that people want change.” He said the government has not collapsed because Knesset members who were just elected in March have no desire to lose their jobs.

But Landau said the government could collapse if a commission empanelled to investigate Olmert’s handling of this summer’s war against Hezbollah is particularly critical. And he said it is “highly probable” that the Labor Party would elect a new leader next spring who might decide to pull the party out of Olmert’s coalition government, causing it to collapse.

Landau said he did not believe the new Labor Party leader would be able to become the next prime minister because of too much party in-fighting.

“Everyone has his hand at the throat of his friend,” he observed. “It’s a party that consists more of personal ambition than vision.”

These developments came as Israel’s High Court of Justice ruled that Palestinians who suffer physical or property damage from Israeli troops in noncombat operations may collect damages from the State of Israel.

“This is of huge financial significance because it might compel the government to disburse hundreds of millions of dollars” to Palestinian claimants, according to Hebrew University Professor Raphael Israeli.

He noted that there are 500 to 600 such claims now before Israeli courts that have been on hold pending the High Court’s ruling. “Hundreds or thousands of other Palestinians who wake up and realize this is a wonderful way to make a buck may now start making demands, whether justified or not,” he said. “Any Palestinian can come and bring witnesses — in quotes — who say they remember which soldier did what.”

Defending against such claims is extremely difficult, Israeli said, and “everybody is worried that Israel will be inundated with fake claims that nobody can counter.”

He pointed out that no other country has such a law, which overturned a law passed by the Knesset in July, 2005, to make the state immune from damages its agents caused in the territories since the start of the second intifada in September, 2000. Professor Israeli noted that at least one Knesset member has promised to introduce new legislation to overcome the court’s objection, but he said it could take some time before it is adopted.

Menachem Hofnung, a Hebrew University political science professor who specializes in law and politics, said the ruling was not a surprise and is “not as dramatic as people may think because it covers only non-combat actions.”

Still exempt is compensation to enemy states or to activists or members of terrorist groups.

“Palestinians still have to prove they were injured in noncombat action and what kind of damage was caused,” Hofnung said. “It opens the doors for [new] suits … but it doesn’t guarantee compensation. My hunch is that the person who brings suit will have to prove all elements of the offense and show that the IDF operation caused the damage and not some fellow Palestinians.”

But the court decision was, in the words of the Jerusalem Post, “highly controversial” because it sets aside legislation overwhelmingly adopted by the Knesset. In an editorial, the paper expressed surprise that the court “essentially ignores the fact that were the [Palestinian Authority] to have chosen to combat and root out terror – a precondition for its very establishment – rather than to have tolerated and encouraged it, there would be no cases for Palestinian victims to bring before the Israeli judiciary.”

Meanwhile, as Olmert gathered European support for sanctions against Iran when the issue comes before the United Nations Security Council Dec. 25, Israeli leaders continued to make clear that Iran’s nuclear program must be stopped.

In comments here at a meeting of the Israel Project, former Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom warned that Israel believes Iran will have the expertise needed to develop a nuclear weapon in the next several months — no more than a year.

He said he believes sanctions would be effective in convincing Iran to halt its nuclear program and that Russia, which until now has resisted sanctions, “is finally aware of how dangerous it is for them, too.”

But he stressed that if the world failed to act, Israel would.

“Israel will never live with the idea that Iran has a nuclear bomb,” he said flatly.

Gerald Steinberg, a political science professor at Bar-Ilan University, said there has been talk that the United States and Europe would lead other countries in imposing sanctions on Iran even if Russia or China were to veto a call for sanctions in the Security Council.

But he said he was not confident that the Security Council would even bring the matter to a vote later this month.

“It has been delayed so many times that when it is voted on, it will be a surprise,” he said.