Olmert, Back From The Brink


Just a few months ago, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was fighting for his political life. Now, with the collapse of the Palestinian unity government and Hamas’ bloody takeover in Gaza, Olmert was warmly greeted this week at the White House and by Jewish leaders here.

“He is riding high,” said Gerald Steinberg, a political science professor at Bar-Ilan University.“Olmert was in the right place at the right time,” he said. “The focus has shifted from Lebanon — despite a couple of rocket firings [on Kiryat Shemona] that were viewed as an internal Palestinian issue — corruption and a lack of leadership, to Palestinian chaos. And Olmert has made no mistakes — he has not become involved and let them deal with it themselves. The issue of Palestinians trying to flee Gaza [and being stuck at an Israeli border crossing] is a minor issue. There is no sense of crisis.”

But Olmert’s enthusiastic reception in the Oval Office should be seen as nothing more than “converging interests,” said Asher Arian, a political science professor at the University of Haifa.

“It is in Bush’s interest to show he is still supporting Israel and in Olmert’s interest to be in the White House,” he explained. Arian said that despite the “terrible things” that have happened to the Palestinians in the last two weeks, the fact that Israel has sat on the sidelines has not changed Israelis’ views of Olmert.

“In the polls, he is still very low,” he said, adding that the peace talks with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas mention ed by Olmert this week will be applauded by the left, rejected by the right and leave “the center confused, which is not what a politician wants.”

“If he has talks and comes to an agreement, the question is going to be whether he can get it through his coalition, his party and the Knesset,” Arian said. “He is in no position to deal courageously with the cards he has because he knows how little support he has and Abbas is in a very weak position too because his control and legitimacy throughout all of Palestine is eroded. So we have two weakened partners at the negotiating table. … I’m not very optimistic.”

Despite their weakened positions, Yossi Beilin, chairman of the left-wing Meretz Party, told reporters in a conference call Tuesday that there are “interesting opportunities that stem from the common fear of the threat of fundamentalists. This is the problem that unites the moderate forces. … We have to negotiate with them as soon as possible for a permanent agreement. If we have to go to an interim agreement, so be it, but I recommend a permanent one.”

If it is feared that Abbas would not be able to implement a complete agreement, Israel should negotiate what is important to it — the assurance of a state with a Jewish majority, internationally recognized borders, the Jewish capital in Jerusalem and a resolution of the Palestinian refugee issue, Beilin said.

“All of this can be achieved by [Abbas],” he insisted.Israeli political analyst Yossi Alpher credited Olmert’s “political maneuvers, political savvy and thick skin” for giving him a “few months of political life” following the release of a highly critical interim report on his handling of last summer’s war with Hezbollah. That view was echoed by Eran Lerman, director or the American Jewish Committee’s Israel/Middle East Office in Jerusalem, who said “Olmert was always the most proficient politician in Israel. There may be questions about his abilities as commander-in-chief, but there is no question he is an able reader of the political map. He is determined to survive and believes [criticism of him] is largely unjust.”Despite “an astounding zero [popularity] rating,” Lerman said, Olmert is credited with “engineering the impossible — the actual election of Shimon Peres” to the presidency of Israel. “It was a question of will” between him and Likud Party leader Benjamin Netanyahu, who supported Rueven Rivlin for the post, Lerman noted. In addition, Olmert managed to appoint Ehud Barak, a highly decorated former Israeli general and ex-prime minister, to the post of defense minister at a time of much uncertainty about Lebanon, Syria, Iran, the Palestinians and the future American commitment to the region, particularly Iraq, Lerman observed.

He added that Barak has a “great analytical mind which adds a certain legitimacy and political stature” to Olmert and his government. Besides, Lerman said, “people are not that keen on another political upheaval in the midst of all the uncertainty. … The two Ehuds will be with us for some time.”

Lerman added that while in Washington, Olmert was able to secure from the White House an additional half billion in American military aid for Israel.

“It was a major message from the president,” he said. “It had been in the works, but it was referred to by Bush following the meeting [with Olmert]. … Olmert definitely deserves credit.”

Alpher said Olmert still has to contend with the final report on the war that is to be released later this summer. Should it recommend Olmert’s ouster, Barak said he would insist that Olmert set a date for early elections.

“Assuming that this is the case, within a half-year we will be in election mode and I find it doubtful that he would take any unusual initiatives in terms of our neighbors,” he said.