Saturday, September 15, 2007

Ending a year of apathy

What event best characterized the past year, a veteran political observer with a great deal of public and diplomatic experience was asked this week. The man thought for a while and replied: "The August 6 meeting of Olmert and Abu Mazen in Jericho." "The meeting in Jericho, of all things?" was the stunned reaction. "Who even remembers it? Why is it important?" "That's exactly it," he replied. "In the days preceding the meeting, they wrote that the core issues - Jerusalem, refugees, borders - would be discussed. The next day, the whole meeting was reported on the inside pages, much less prominently than the Heftsiba affair. Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated because he was about to return a few neighborhoods in Hebron. Today the public doesn't get excited, and doesn't hold its breath before and after every meeting. There is a comprehensive lack of confidence. If I had to give this year a name, I would call it the 'Year of Apathy.' "In what other country would you have the finance minister resign because of a serious indictment and the markets go up? The political arena is becoming irrelevant to our lives. After all, if 20 years ago the justice minister and the Supreme Court president had exchanged words the way Friedman and Beinisch did [recently], the country would have gone crazy. Today it remains a media discussion." On the eve of Rosh Hashana 5767, just a moment after the war, the country seethed with an atmosphere of disgust, anger and frustration; today, a year later, this has changed. Now we laugh. This year we saw a finance minister, a defense minister, a chief of staff, a police commissioner and a president leave their jobs under distressing circumstances (each in his individual circumstances - of course there is no comparison between Moshe Katsav and Amir Peretz, or between Abraham Hirchson, on the one hand, and Dan Halutz and Moshe Karadi, on the other). Yet people react as if nothing happened. Nada. It seems like nobody but Accountant General Yaron Zelekha really cares about anything. Was there a war? - Who remembers? Is there a peace process? - Who's interested? As the new year dawns, it looks as though only a security incident of strategic, non-conventional dimensions can shake this nation out of its unhealthy complacency, the semi-coma into which it has fallen. Olmert is surviving Twelve months ago, few people believed that Ehud Olmert would end the year in the prime minister's seat. The holiday interviews he gave on the eve of Rosh Hashana 5767 were held a few days after the establishment of the Winograd Committee. Olmert was prepared for a difficult year, but even he did not expect such a harsh report from the committee he brought to life. And even he did not know back then that Zelekha and State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss were secretly investigating his role in the Bank Leumi and the Investment Center affairs. And Olmert also did not imagine that his levels of support, which but a month earlier had soared to 80 percent, would drop within two to three months to 10 percent, more or less. He absorbed blows that left their mark on his eyes, on his overall appearance. And in spite of everything, he is still here. In a way we have become accustomed to him. There is no point in once again discussing how and why he has survived. We're tired of it. Olmert is here, at least for the coming months. He is basically a reasonable prime minister. He is certainly not among our worst. The state is running properly, the government is functioning - from an objective standpoint, the situation is not bad, except for the feeling of disgust and the apathy. Olmert has certainly learned something this year, or at least we hope so. Last Thursday, Olmert appeared before thousands of Kadima members at Jerusalem's Binyanei Ha'uma Convention Center. A few hours earlier, news of the aerial incident in the skies over Syria had been reported for the first time. Olmert chose to begin his speech with the statement, "You don't know how difficult it is to be prime minister." His listeners did not really understand him, they thought he was once again referring to the polls, to his lack of popularity. Only a handful of people sitting in the auditorium's first row knew what he was talking about: about the loneliness at the top, about butterflies in your stomach at important historic moments, about the fear of a failure that could result in a catastrophe. The last thing Olmert needs is another security catastrophe. It is difficult to assess whether the present period signals the beginning of the process of Olmert's image being rehabilitated. These days are full of potential in quite a few arenas: security, diplomatic and political. If he fails, the sole responsibility for failure will lie with the prime minister. If Olmert succeeds, he will have to fight over the credit with Defense Minister Ehud Barak. Wars for credit continue for years: Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres quarreled up to Rabin's last day about which one of them had pushed more vigorously for Operation Entebbe. Olmert concludes 5767 with an echoing, mysterious and rumor-laden silence that will in time turn into facts. The slow-to-evaporate mystery on the Syrian front is mingling with the escalation on the Southern front, after a Qassam rocket hit the Zikim army base. Meanwhile, Olmert's silence is paying off and is considered a sign of maturity and seriousness in a prime minister who liked to chatter incessantly. But the low point in public opinion to which Olmert has plummeted in recent months is both prolonged and profound. Other prime ministers, like Benjamin Netanyahu and Barak, whose approval ratings dropped to such an abyss never recovered and suffered the humiliation of being voted out of office in early elections. The former was pushed out after about three years, the latter did not even last a year and a half. Olmert can derive satisfaction from the fact that he has broken Barak's negative record, which seemed near impossible only a year ago. Now he still has to focus on an attempt to catch up with Netanyahu's three-year term and make it to the beginning of 2009. He could succeed in this, given a certain security-related scenario (war with Syria or a confrontation with Iran) or a specific diplomatic scenario (achieving a serious and spectacular agreement with the Palestinians). Both scenarios would make it difficult for the Labor Party to leave the government and also render the final Winograd report irrelevant. It is entirely possible that Olmert will still be prime minister a year from now, and Ehud Barak will still be defense minister. If the first, security-related scenario should come true, perhaps Netanyahu will become foreign minister. On the other hand, if the diplomatic scenario is realized, and Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Abu Mazen sign a comprehensive agreement of principles, Avigdor Lieberman, who already now is fidgeting uncomfortably in his seat, will not be able to remain in the government. The pressure will shift to Shas. A close triumvirate The Second Lebanon War has spawned a revival of the two most unpopular leaders of the previous decade: Netanyahu and Barak have returned to center stage. The former is back as the leader of the opposition and a leading candidate for the premiership, the latter as defense minister, at the right time and in the right job, with potential for promotion. Both have completed the process of taking over their parties, suppressed the islands of internal opposition with a strong hand, and strengthened their party's standing ahead of the next elections. In Labor, Ami Ayalon no longer threatens Barak, and Amir Peretz is making do with plaintive interviews. In the Likud, Silvan Shalom has accepted his fate and returned to the ranks. Of the three party leaders, it is only Olmert who still faces internal threats: Livni, who failed the test of leadership during the past year, is waiting for a second chance, as are Shaul Mofaz, Meir Sheetrit, Avi Dichter and Roni Bar-On, and it is said that even Dalia Itzik, who is making a favorable showing in the polls, it beginning to rev up the engines ahead of a possible move of her own, the devil knows where. Netanyahu was at one and the same time the closest and the furthest away from the premiership this year; the closest in the polls, the farthest in terms of the political-parliamentary reality. As the year comes to an end, he understands that if he is to capture the premiership, it will have to be through elections and not by means of clumsy wheeling and dealing during this Knesset term. Netanyahu won every possible title in 5767: Channel 2's Man of the Year, a leading candidate for prime minister, chair of the largest party in the polls and an outstanding finance minister. And he was reelected to head the Likud by a decisive majority, even if the process of his selection was accompanied by a bitter taste, the taste of Moshe Feiglin. Only one title has been denied him, for now: the title he covets most. Olmert's coalition has proved that in stark contrast to public opinion, it has a will to live and a life cycle of its own. In the summer of 2008, the Knesset will pass its midterm, and the theoretical chances of its being dispersed early will increase. The triumvirate of Olmert-Barak-Netanyahu will shape the face of 5768; the relations among these three are fascinating, complex and multifaceted. They are dependent on one another, enmeshed with one another. Every move by one of them, especially Olmert and Barak, will automatically affect the other two. Netanyahu is playing a more passive game, and his fate is in the hands of the two Ehuds. As long as the premiership looks like a ripe fruit only waiting to fall into Bibi's lap, there is no chance that Ehud & Ehud will grant him this pleasure.

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