A Political Earthquake

Guardian- 02/05/2007

We knew that the Winograd report, investigating the failures during last summer’s war with Hizbullah, would be critical of Israel’s political and military leadership. But no one here in Israel expected a political earthquake of this magnitude.

In his brief presentation on Monday, committee chair, retired judge Eliyahu Winograd, was scathing in his remarks.

The report slammed the prime minister, Ehud Olmert, for making hasty decisions without systematically consulting others, without exploring the options available, without considering reservations that were expressed – and all this despite his lack of experience in military and foreign affairs.

Olmert, the report continued, failed to “clearly and carefully” set goals for the campaign and did not seriously consider whether his goals could be met with the methods he approved. Once it was clear that these goals were unrealistic, Olmert failed to adapt his plan. The conclusion of the committee was that: “All of these add up to a serious failure in exercising judgment, responsibility and prudence.”

The report was similarly critical of the defence minister, Amir Peretz, and the former chief of staff, Dan Halutz. However, Halutz stepped down in January and Peretz is bound to lose his party’s leadership primary at the end of the month. This means that the public’s attention is now focused squarely on Ehud Olmert.

This process of an excoriating public discussion, in order to set in motion a national house cleansing, while a familiar one to observers of Israel, is still a sight unique in the Middle East. It derives from the belief, in the word of the report itself, “that one of Israeli society’s greatest sources of strength is its being free, open and creative”. To cope with existential challenges, “Israel must be a … society which examines its achievements and, in particular, its failures, in order to improve its ability to face the future.”

So what will happen next? There are a number of possible scenarios.

Scenario 1: Olmert Quits. When a country’s leader has to go on television to say nothing more than “I’m not resigning,” the end could indeed be near. Olmert cannot simply escape by promising to implement the committee’s recommendations, because the main theme is that Olmert and Peretz must resign.

By resisting, though, Olmert has nothing to lose. At present, he is at a low point and history will judge him harshly. By holding on, he can hope something may yet happen to turn things around. Still, realising the final Winograd report may be even harsher than this one, his advisers may knock on his door and tell him the question is no longer “if” but how and when he leaves office. In such a scenario, he may prefer to quit now rather than be humiliated by being forced to resign in a few months.

Scenario 2: A revolt in his own Kadima party. The deputy prime minister and foreign minister, Tsipi Livni, who is first in line to succeed him, is keeping quiet and has for weeks refused to openly declare her support for Olmert. While his supporters had made some headway lately in closing ranks inside Kadima, since the report was released, wider cracks have emerged. Already a Kadima Knesset member has publicly and clearly called for him to go. This could quickly avalanche, leaving Olmert virtually alone. After all, his Kadima colleagues have the most to lose, with the young party facing the possibility of extinction in the next elections. Getting him out is essential for their futures.

If he does go, Livni would take over and veteran politician Shimon Peres would be temporary party chairman until primaries are held to choose a new leader in eight weeks. Livni would probably take over leadership of the party and form the next government.

Scenario 3: New elections. If elections seemed far off before the report, the opposition has finally begun openly demanding them. Still, the basic fact remains: no coalition party wants new elections in which they would all fare poorly. And the most likely winner in the next elections, given Israel’s frustrations with Palestinian intransigence and growing Islamist radicalism, is conservative former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Olmert could try to survive but if he does, such a scenario would paralyse Israeli politics. The prime minister would be unable to take action in Gaza, Lebanon, or Iran. In comparison to his situation, a “lame duck” would look like an eagle. Because it is vital to remember that all this internal ferment is not taking place against a background of regional stability. Rather, issues of the utmost urgency are confronting the Jewish state. The Iranian nuclear threat, Iraq’s near-civil war, murmurs of a possible Syrian strike on Golan, the ongoing re-arming of Hizbullah and Hamas’s threats to resume targeting Israeli cities are all matters demanding immediate attention. The question now is whether the national calling-to-account currently taking place in Israel will produce a leadership and institutions sufficiently reinvigorated to respond effectively to these challenges, or whether it will simply be the prelude to yet another committee of inquiry.

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