May 3, 2007
Jerusalem — Don't be too anxious to count Ehud Olmert out yet.
Given, there are many reasons to conclude that he's headed face first for the canvass. He's widely regarded as corrupt. If he can make it through the Winograd fallout, he's still got to deal with several criminal probes —all boiling down to allegations over peddling influence for cash and creating sweetheart deals for his cronies. Before the report was even issued, the Israeli public had already concluded that the Israeli leadership, as well as Olmert blew it during the war. His approval ratings were almost silly: 2 and 3 percent.
Then, the report came out. It contains so much harsh language it becomes almost redundant to list all of the bullet points chiding Olmert for a hasty and foolish battle plan that concluded with Israel's soldiers still in enemy hands. Hezbollah, not Israel's mighty army, decided when the rocket fire would stop. There is not a single line in the initial Winograd report that cuts Olmert a break. Monday morning quarterbacking is a contact sport in Israel, and all the shots are aimed at Olmert.
After Israel was caught unprepared for the 1973 Yom Kippur War, the performance review was mild compared to the Winograd. But the public ultimately forced then-Prime Minister Golda Meir and Defense Minister Moshe Dayan out of office.
However, on a day when Tzipi Livni, the Foreign Minister and most likely candidate to replace Olmert, looked him in the eye and told him to resign, something happened. The top leadership of his Kadima party rallied behind Olmert and his defiant decision to stay and fight. Dozens of Kadima leaders met and only three failed to back him. Former Prime Minister Shimon Peres summed up the meeting it as an “unprecedented” show of support. Olmert emerged with his party still in his corner. Whatever challenge Livni may have been prepared to present, it now lacks punching power.
Holding his party together, it looks like Olmert can hold his coalition together and therefore maintain the majority of seats in parliament. In a coalition government, a prime minister doesn't need popularity to stay in power, just 51 percent of parliament. It is unlikely that coalition partners will abandon Olmert in the short term. From the Shas party to Labour, they don't have a good idea for who should replace Olmert. Tzipi Livni from Kadima is popular, but she has the same (lack of experience) problem Olmert had coming into office. The Labour Party could present former Prime Minister Ehud Barak, but no one is too crazy about him. If you remember, after the Camp David talks Barak called early elections in an attempt to shore up his public support ... and the public sent him home.
From the opposition, there's Benjamin Netanyahu. If it comes to early elections, at the moment, he'd be the leading candidate. But Netanyahu is much more popular in America than he is in Israel. His time as prime minister is remembered for failed peace talks and a botched attempt to assassinate Khaled Meshal, which helped Hamas grow to prominence. Polls show he's got supporters, particularly on the right. But in my years in Israel, it's been rare to encounter someone who will offer a complimentary word about him.
The politicians and their parties will not leave Olmert's side until they have another leader to bring them shelter. Ariel Sharon's assistant Rannan Gissen used to tell me that people don't want to be outside the government “because it's cold outside.”
As they did after the Yom Kippur War, the politicians will have to answer to an outraged public — but the Israeli public seems to be apathetic. I get the feeling they have accepted that they will forever live in a state of disappointment with their leadership. The columnists have produced an abundance of op-eds, but the readers are not devouring them. My Israeli friends are not giving me their opinions with loud voices, waving hands and shaking fingers. They ask me what's going on because they haven't read about it yet today, and then they change the subject.
If I were making odds, I'd say that Olmert would stay on his feet for the rest of this round. The next round comes in August when the Winograd Commission issues its final report. That report will focus on the worst parts of the war. It starts with day six, and goes through the Kaytusha strikes which killed reservists waiting to go into combat. It goes through the ground war, in which Israel could not present a good defense to Hezbollah's anti-tank rockets. The Merkava tanks, a great source of pride for the Israeli army, suddenly appeared vulnerable and tank crew members died — some four soldiers at a time. For that sacrifice, there is little Israel can say they got in return. The final report will also make recommendations. If the panel recommends that Olmert has to go, that's probably when you can throw in the towel.
Mike, I often enjoy hearing your reports on FOX News during the day. Fox DEFINITELY has my vote on the "Fair and Balanced" controversy of news media reporting. I often write comments on the website www.jpost.com. I just finished submitting a comment on an opinion article written by Saul Singer, titled "Interesting Times: Sore Winners." In it, he discusses the Winograd report you mentioned in your blog. My comment notes the similarities between the Jews of Israel, and the practitioners of Shiite Islam concerning the "whipping" of themselves over the loss of a "battle," or a point of "world-view," in which both groups lament their "losses" by "beating themselves up." However, in the case of the War that the Report discusses, 25 percent of Hezbollah "troops" were killed, and ALL rocket launchers were destroyed. I stated at the end, that in this case, "Hindsight is not ALWAYS 20/20!" I then stated that Israelis should STOP 'whipping" themselves, because, technically, they WON the Second Lebanon War; they just did not see it as a victory. In that sense, Israeli Politics IS a "contact sport," as you so aptly put it! If any of my comments help you to put any of this mess into some perspective that might assist Americans in "understanding" the complexities of the situation in Israel and the Middle East that you are covering, please feel free to use any, all, or nothing. I appreciate your good work, and trust that it will continue, and that you will remain safe. I also pray for Peace in Jerusalem! Shalom! — Roy (Comanche, TX)
I had a chuckle at your comparison between the Winograd report and the Shiite ritual for the Ashura holiday. But metaphorically you're not that far off. Ashura is recognition for a battle between the Sunnis and Shiites on the plains of Karbala in the 700s. Hussein, the grandson of Mohammed, was killed and the bloodline of the prophet ended there. Shiites beat themselves with chains and knives for failing to save Hussein. Columnists in Israel frequently use the Phrase "self flagellate" referring to the way Israelis review an unsatisfactory effort. It is impossible to come up with a solid figure for how many Hezbollah "troops" were killed in this summer's war. They dress like civilians and look like civilians and Hezbollah was not motivated to report solid figures about their war dead. As far as all rocket launchers being destroyed, that's not accurate. I watched Hezbollah fire at will until the last day of the war. What Israel accomplished was implementation of the UN resolutions, which required Lebanese troops on the border. That doesn't get Hezbollah off their border but it keeps them from operating in the open. Thanks for watching.
Inform me please about e-mail address of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. — Bentsion
Go to the website PMO.gov.il. You'll see the contact info there.
Mike Tobin is a foreign correspondent for FOX News Channel based in Jerusalem. You can read his bio here.
Michael Tobin joined FOX News Channel (FNC) in 2001 and currently serves as a Chicago-based correspondent.