Thursday, July 31, 2008

Olmert's Shoulders

Editorial of The New York Sun | July 31, 2008

A joke in Israel has it that the Knesset, fed up with corruption among elected officials, passed a law. Every guilty official must walk into the Mediterranean to a depth consistent with the degree of guilt. So Haim Ramon, accused of kissing a woman who merely wanted a photograph, goes out up to his ankles. Finance Minister Hirchson, guilty of financial shenanigans, goes in up to his knees. President Katzav, guilty of serial sexual harassment, goes in until the Mediterranean laps his chin. Someone walking by on shore calls, "Katzav, why are you only out to where the water is up to your chin?" The disgraced president replies, "I'm standing on Olmert's shoulders." We thought of that story when Prime Minister Olmert announced, while denying the corruption charges swirling around him, that he will step down from Israel's most powerful political job. The move will come as soon as his party, Kadima, elects a successor in an already scheduled party primary. The betting is on Foreign Minister Tzippi Livni, who is vice premier, or the minister of transportation, Shaul Mofaz, who is deputy premier, former defense minister, and one-time chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces. There is a sense that, for better or worse, whoever wins will be standing on Mr. Olmert's shoulders.

For the next government is likely to have the same party composition as the present one; there is a less plausible scenario in which the new Kadima party leader and prime minister would reach out to try to include Likud, currently the main opposition party, in a coalition with Kadima and Labor. Such a coalition would have a commanding majority in the Knesset but with a fuzzy mandate. The push for a larger coalition will gain traction if the tide turns towards war in Gaza against the steadily rearming terrorist groups led by Hamas and or in Lebanon against the already rearmed Hezbollah. A large coalition might also take shape against the backdrop of a decision by the political and military chiefs to launch a preemptive strike against Iranian nuclear and rocketry facilities.

As all this is worked out, Mr. Olmert will be remembered, at least in part, as one of Ariel Sharon's inner voices. We say one of because he had a number of conflicting passions. Mr. Olmert was the first to articulate the switch in Mr. Sharon's thinking about the future of Israel with respect to the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. Mr. Olmert did not have the national security gravitas that was part of Mr. Sharon's public persona. He became prime minister by riding Mr. Sharon's coattails, and helped lead a break-up of the Likud party over Mr. Sharon's plan to withdraw unilaterally from Gaza, removing the Israelis who were living in villages there.

When Mr. Sharon suffered the stroke that ended his career, Mr. Olmert became premier. Visitors to Mr. Olmert's office the day after he officially acceded in May 2006 heard him say that the second stage of the "disengagement" — meaning the West Bank — was scheduled for December. Then an Israeli soldier was kidnapped and taken into the Gaza Strip. Two months later Hezbollah attacked and killed an Israeli army patrol, kidnapping two more soldiers. The IDF replied by taking the fight into Gaza and Lebanon, with indecisive results. Gaza became a launching pad for rockets, and the appeal among Israelis of Mr. Olmert's plan to do in the West Bank what had been done in Gaza began to fade.

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The next Israeli government will inherit the remains of these policies. It is a time to remember that through much of its history, Israel has inspired millions at home and abroad. It has rarely done this with a retreat. It has done it with its commitment and daring, with its willingness to base its actions on the rightness of its cause. We have no doubt that an Israel that acts and advances will inspire the world anew, not to mention its own people. And that whoever is elected premier will have the good will of not only the Diaspora but of the Americans who have comprehended the idea of a Jewish restoration in Israel since the founding days of our own republic.

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