Thursday, August 28, 2008

Olmert's swan song

Departing prime minister determined to end his term in office on a positive note

Roni Sofer
Israel Opinion

Less than a month remains until the Kadima primaries, and the prime minister is in the midst of a three-way race of his own: The diplomatic, economic, and public relations front. If he succeeds in one of them, his associates say, he will be satisfied with his almost three years in Israel's top job – "and he's determined to succeed." The diplomatic front can be divided to several areas. The advancing-yet-stuck Palestinian track has the potential for an achievement, even if only in the form of a shelf agreement to remain as legacy for the day after Olmert, Abbas, and President Bush. The prime minister is pushing hard, and Condoleezza Rice's visit takes the race into the final stretch. Yet the chances aren't high.

On the Syrian track, the likelihood is even slimmer. Assad visited Moscow and sought to purchase advanced weapons, including anti-aircraft systems. Recently he also visited Tehran and made clear that he did not abandon the "axis of evil." There is indeed agreement in principle between Jerusalem and Damascus regarding the substance of a treaty, particularly when it comes to the price to be paid by Israel. Yet the Syrians still insist on American presence in the negotiations, freedom to act vis-à-vis Iran and Lebanon, and in practice are still acting as the patrons of Hizbullah and Hamas.

The third diplomatic track is directed to the West's effort to curb Iran's nuclear aims. Olmert is indeed "keeping all options on the table," yet in practice it is obvious to him – and the Americans made it unequivocally clear – that the military option will not be received warmly. So in addition to acquiring protective means and continuing military preparations, Israel is supposed to act vigorously in order to tighten the sanctions on Iran via a resolute diplomatic campaign. However, this is not happening. In practice, Olmert, Livni, Barak, and even Mofaz are preoccupied with domestic political battles. This front has almost been abandoned, and therefore there is no chance that it would grant the prime minister some kind of victory before his departure.

Nothing to lose
As a result, in recent days Olmert has been concentrating his efforts on a front where he has shown some achievements during his term in office – the economic front. In addition to Israel's relative stability on the global market, certain strengthening of the shekel, and Jerusalem's attempt to connect to global economic power centers, a fierce internal battle is currently being fought over the 2009 budget. Seemingly, there isn't much different about this battle compared to previous budget wars. However, this time around the battle takes place under different circumstances.

First of all, it's happening a relatively short while after the Winograd Report, which slammed the IDF's failure to prepare for the Second Lebanon War. Secondly, it's happening while Olmert and his government seek to portray themselves as committed to social causes. Thirdly, it's happening while Israel is seeing indications of a global recession that are shaking much more powerful economies, such as the American one. The prime minister knows that under such circumstances he must engage in a supreme effort and juggle the various needs in order to approve the budget, at least in the government, before the Kadima primaries.

His chances here aren't bad. The gaps between the various parties aren't that big. A certain boost to the 2009 budget, alongside fund transfers desired by coalition partners, would enable Olmert to complete his shortened tenure with an impressive economic achievement. He would be able to say that during his era Israel boosted its growth rate and turned into a magnet for international investments, while also preparing the IDF to face the tough challenges ahead and minimizing social gaps in Israel.

A little too late
On the third front, Olmert doesn’t have much to lose. His associates and ministers working with him say this is visible. He is much calmer, and much more like the Olmert they knew in the past. He does not keep silent, he argues, and he fights back, while conducting himself in a stately manner.

Never before had we seen a prime minister around here with a lower approval rating. His image in the world is also not the best – there's virtually no global leader who doesn't know that Olmert has been forced to quit against a backdrop of criminal investigations. Yet beyond this, he has been tainted by the war – a

war initiated by Israel that failed to secure its objectives. The thousands of rockets and mortar shells fired at the Gaza region are also attributed to his weakness. And so, the strike on the Syrian nuclear site and the assassination of Hizbullah commander Mugniyah, both attributed to Israel, do not change his image as a weak leader.

As noted, under such circumstances he has nothing to lose. His invigorated conduct could be seen in the government session last week where he lashed out at Ehud Barak and Avi Dichter. There are disagreements in respect to the possibility that this old-new demeanor will prompt a positive change in the departing prime minister's image. Yet it is clear that he started this battle a little too late.

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