WORLD

OLMERT’S NOT SO BRILLIANT CAREER?

The war’s final casualties may well include the PM

MICHAEL PETROU August 28 2006
WORLD

OLMERT’S NOT SO BRILLIANT CAREER?

The war’s final casualties may well include the PM

MICHAEL PETROU August 28 2006

OLMERT’S NOT SO BRILLIANT CAREER?

The war’s final casualties may well include the PM

WORLD

MICHAEL PETROU

Ehud Olmert is a man

who became prime minister, some Israelis say, by accident. He was never a very prominent figure in Israeli national politics until earlier this year, when he was made acting prime minister as a result of a stroke suffered by Ariel Sharon. He lead the Kadima party to victory in March elections, but as one Israeli put it: “People were voting for the Sharon legend while they were voting for Olmert. They weren’t voting for Olmert himself.” But in the past month, Olmert has led Israel through its biggest crisis in decades and one of its longest wars ever. Unlike his predecessor Sharon, famous—and infamous— for a military past that dates to membership in paramilitary groups during the 1940s, and Ehud Barak, who once disguised himself as a woman to sneak into Beirut and gun down members of the PLO, Olmert has relatively little military experience.

This might have been a factor in his decision to respond with such force to the kidnapping of two Israeli soldiers and rocket attacks against northern Israel by Hezbollah. Even Sharon, when faced with similar Hezbollah aggression, did less. But then Sharon never needed to demonstrate to Israelis that he was tough. Olmert did. And most Israelis approved of the initial results. “He’s doing what he has to do,” said Edgar Asis, 64, a vendor at Tel Aviv’s bustling Carmel market, when he was interviewed by Maclean’s in the war’s final days. “We need to get rid of those bastards. They’re terrorists, not human beings.” A few metres away, Yakov Tehrani, 68, shirtless and deeply tanned, stood splitting watermelons with a large knife. He paused and pointed to a nearby stand. “Look over there, by the guy selling cheese. A suicide bomber blew himself up right there two years ago. If it’s not the rockets, it’s suicide bombs. What country in the world would tolerate this?” Vendors at the Carmel market are a hard bunch. (Years ago, a thief grabbed a woman’s purse here and made a run for it. Several vendors chased him down, beat him senseless

and then dumped him on the front steps of a nearby police station.) But in the nearby cafés, usually favoured by Tel Aviv’s left-wing crowd, the reaction to Olmert’s handling of the Hezbollah crisis was identical. “He does whatever it takes to stop it,” said Adi Froumin, 27. “I hope he won’t stop. Even though we have a lot of political pressure from all over the world, he knows that the first thing that matters is our safety. He doesn’t play games.” Arabs, who make up some 20 per cent of Israel’s population, feel differently, especially in the politically charged streets of East Jerusalem, where photographs of Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah can now be found tucked into corners of restaurant mirrors. Ramadan Maswali, a middle-aged man, condemned both sides as “losers” and said the country needs peace. But Walid Ghnem, 27, urged Hezbollah to kill all the Jews in Israel, and Mohammad Mustafa, 22, praised Hezbollah, even though its rockets killed many Israeli Arab civilians as well. “If an Arab is killed by Hezbollah, he’s a shahid [martyr]. If Hezbollah sends a rocket here, it’s no problem,” he said. “They’re trying to save the country.”

But Israeli Arabs won’t affect Olmert’s political future. The fact remains that he launched a war with the almost universal backing of Israeli Jews. Other politicians would envy being in such a position—which makes it all the more remarkable that the Israeli prime minister has squandered it.

EHUD OLMERT’S problems are twofold. First, the war did not go as well as most of the country expected.

Israelis are used to conflict and have a large capacity for hardship. Indeed, being in Israel

during a war is surreal. The cafés were packed. Tel Aviv’s beaches were full of people splashing in the surf and playing sports—as Black Hawk helicopters buzzed overhead and Hezbollah rocket strikes crept ever southward. But Israelis also expect their wars to be swift and devastating. In the past, the country has simultaneously defeated several Arab national armies within days or weeks. This time, after more than a month,

the Israel Defense Forces were unable to stop continued rocket attacks from a small militia. More than 200 rockets were fired into Israel on the final day before the ceasefire came into effect—proving that Hezbollah had not been militarily degraded, as promised. And the ceasefire brought neither Hezbollah’s immediate disarmament, nor the return of the two Israeli soldiers whose kidnapping was the reason the conflict began.

Olmert can shift some blame for this onto military commanders, but they in turn can— and have—complained that Israeli politicians have held them back since the war began. The campaign began with air strikes, followed by pinpoint raids. A wider ground assault was temporarily delayed, allegedly because ofU.S. pressure. “A military force always needs to be on the offensive, pushing forward and keeping the enemy on its toes,” a senior IDF official told the Jerusalem Post. “When you sit still for too

long, you turn into a target and you begin to get hit again and again.”

Olmert might also blame Sharon, who arguably allowed the Hezbollah threat to build up. But inevitably it is the PM who will bear the most responsibility for military disappointments. And now that the war has ended, opposition politicians can sense his weakness. After Olmert admitted to “shortcomings” in Israel’s actions, Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu flatly stated Hezbollah would be back, saying that “what we have here is a lull, between this round and the next one.” Olmert’s second major problem is more political. He campaigned heavily on the issue of evacuating Jewish settlements in much of the West Bank—land that Israel occupied after

‘YOU DON’T SEND THEM TO DIE IN LEBANON IN ORDER TO EXPEL THEIR FAMILIES FROM THEIR HOMES’

the 1967 war with neighbouring Arab states. Olmert vowed to “realign” Israel’s borders by withdrawing from this land, with or without the co-operation of the Palestinians! His proposal built on the precedent set by Sharon, who pulled out of Gaza and had pledged to do the same in large parts of the West Bank.

The move was highly controversial. Today in Jerusalem it is common to see Jews wearing bright orange articles of clothing, symbolizing their opposition to any withdrawal, or “retreat” as they often describe it, from Gaza and the West Bank. Many wear buttons that proclaim: “We will not forget, and we will not forgive.” But Olmert argued that Israel could not remain both Jewish and democratic if it continued to occupy Palestinian territories. Moreover, he said that withdrawing to stable borders would improve Israel’s security. Enough Israelis agreed with Olmert to give him a mandate.

But, this summer, Israel was first attacked from Gaza, territory that it relinquished last year, and then from south Lebanon, from which it had withdrawn in 2000, after an 18year occupation. Suddenly the idea that handing over more territory to the Palestinians would improve Israel’s security lost credibility. “I think the problems began by withdrawing from Gaza without any concessions on the other side,” said Hannah Benjamin, a 56-year-old merchant. “This is the Middle East. You don’t give concessions without getting something. You don’t give anything for free.” Many Israelis consider the West Bank settlers religious extremists who have caused Israel a lot of pointless trouble. But they also genuinely fear what giving up this territory would mean for the security of Israel. Rockets fired from Lebanon easily reached Haifa, some 50 km from the border. Similar attacks from the West Bank would hit Tel Aviv. “I believe the consensus about realignment has changed,” said Yiftak Nativ, an Israeli Jew living north of Tel Aviv. “You give them territory, and they keep shooting at you.” Olmert might have accepted that views about disengagement had changed, and tried to define his politics in another way. Instead, he committed a colossal blunder. In an interview with Associated Press, he implied that the war in Lebanon would bolster his plans for pulling out of the West Bank. “I’ll surprise you,” he said. “I genuinely believe that the outcome of the present [war] and the emergence of a new order that will provide more stability and will defeat the forces of

terror will help create the necessary environment that will allow me to create a new momentum between us and the Palestinians. We want to separate from the Palestinians. I’m ready to do it.”

Israelis were furious. Soldiers who believed they were fighting to defend their country now wondered if they had in fact been enlisted to serve Olmert’s political agenda. Some soldiers and officers from the settlements threatened to refuse military service. “It was damaging,” said Aluf Benn, diplomatic correspondent for the newspaper Haaretz. “It showed first of all insensitivity to the fact that many of the commanders and soldiers, as well as those killed in action, were from the settlements. You don’t send them to die in Lebanon in order to expel their families from their homes.”

Olmert reversed himself, but the damage was done. And the irony, perhaps, is that his biggest error was one of timing rather than substance. “Olmert was right with his silly remarks,” said Avi Bareli, a historian at BenGurion University of the Negev. “If the war is successful, it will be good news for disengagement. It will strengthen Olmert personally and prove that you can pull back to a recognized border and then attack again from that border if you are attacked.” There are still Israelis who support this view. Erez Gil-Har, a young professional living in Tel Aviv, argued that Israel may well face missile attacks from an evacuated West Bank, “but then we’d have justification in front of the whole world, just like we do in Lebanon.”

But the war did not end well for Israel. Hezbollah is claiming victory and Iran will continue supporting its puppet militia. It is also unlikely that the Lebanese army or United Nations soldiers, who are to be deployed in south Lebanon, will have the will or the ability to disarm Hezbollah or remove it from proximity to Israel’s borders. And many Israelis don’t trust the UN to begin with. Shachar Nativ, who served in the army in south Lebanon during the ’90s, remembers being fired at by Lebanese militiamen who were sheltering behind UN convoys. His commanding officer and a close friend were killed. The UN did nothing. “They could call this peacekeeping,” he said. “But there has never been an instance in 30 years when they stopped the Palestinians or Hezbollah from attacking us.”

Even if the UN and Lebanese army succeed in bringing a semblance of peace to south Lebanon, if the ceasefire holds and Israel’s latest confrontation with Hezbollah concludes, this war could have two final casualties. The first—at least in the short term— is Israel’s planned withdrawal from the West Bank. The second may be the career of the prime minister himself. M