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The Olmert Omerta

The survival of Israel's inept and arrogant prime minister may have devastating consequences for Israeli society.

The good news about Ehud Olmert is that he is not a willful murderer of Israeli soldiers. The bad news is that he is the most inept and arrogant Israeli prime minister in the country's history.

While the Winograd Commission investigating the Second Lebanon War has absolved Olmert of the worst accusation ever made against an Israeli prime minister--that he sent 33 soldiers to their deaths on a useless mission, whose only purpose was to bolster his image as a tough leader--the commission did confirm what the Israeli public has sensed since August 2006: that the Lebanon War was the worst military defeat in Israel's history, that the IDF missed an unprecedented opportunity to restore calm to Israel's borders and restore its shattered deterrence, and that Olmert's judgment was flawed at every crucial step.

Throngs of bereaved parents and reservist officers from the Lebanon war have been camped outside Olmert's office for the past few days. Despite their demands for Olmert's ouster in accountability for his failed leadership last summer, the prime minister will probably survive. Having been absolved of the most sensational accusation, the commission's indictment of Olmert's leadership comes as an anti-climax--especially given the fact that the commission's interim report, released nine months ago, already went public with that same conclusion. His continued political survival, however, could do irreparable damage toward the already weakened the bonds of trust that Israeli citizens have with their government.


Until Olmert's election, every Israeli prime minister could lay claim to the Zionist ethos of heroism. Israel's leaders were divided into two groups: the European-born founders like David Ben-Gurion, Golda Meir, and Menachem Begin who embodied self-sacrifice, and the native-born sabras like Yitzhak Rabin, Ariel Sharon, and Ehud Barak who boasted first-rate military careers. Even Benjamin Netanyahu, the only one of the sabra prime ministers who didn't rise to the top of the security establishment, was an officer in Israel's most elite commando unit; his brother, Yoni, the fallen hero of the Entebbe rescue mission in 1976, added an heroic aura to the Netanyahu family.

Olmert, neither founder nor hero, is the first professional politician to serve as prime minister. Yet, in resisting calls for his resignation, he is insisting on being absolved of the standards for personal accountability in war to which other prime ministers were held. Golda Meir and her defense minister, Moshe Dayan, were forced from office by an outraged public because of failure in the 1973 Yom Kippur War, while Menachem Begin and his defense minister, Ariel Sharon, were compelled to resign because of failure in the first Lebanon War in 1982. Olmert, though, sees himself as immune from such archaic values as personal responsibility. Even before the release of the final version of the Winograd report, Olmert had announced that he wouldn't resign no matter what the commission concluded.

Olmert's fatal flaw, and the source of his failure in Lebanon, is arrogance. No Israeli leader ever decided to go to war faster than Olmert did--in a matter of hours. And no Israeli leader was worse prepared: Not only did Olmert have no security expertise, but neither did his defense minister. The one member of his cabinet with top military credentials--former IDF chief of staff Shaul Mofaz--was serving as transportation minister, and Olmert didn't include him in his inner circle. Olmert failed to establish clear goals for Israel's counter-attack or to inquire whether the IDF had alternative plans. Olmert's policy was, in effect: Let's go to war and see what happens.

Israelis, who are repeatedly called upon to defend their country, have to trust their leaders' integrity. Even if Olmert has been vindicated of the accusation that he sacrificed 33 soldiers for personal gain, he remains the first Israeli prime minister widely perceived to place his own interests above those of the nation. Olmert still faces nearly a half-dozen criminal investigations and, according to a recent poll, is seen by Israelis as the country's most corrupt leader, a clever lawyer who's managed to keep one step ahead of the law. That perception could undermine morale in wartime. Israelis may well ask whether a leader who failed so miserably in war and then refused to take personal responsibility for that failure has the right to send their sons into war again.

Olmert's political longevity will also have devastating consequences for his political party, Kadima, the first centrist party to form a government. In linking the center to his own persona, Olmert will drive many Kadima voters back to the right or the left. Olmert's failure is ideological, too. The hope of Kadima was to free Israeli politics from the contest between two equally non-viable alternatives: "greater Israel" of the right, "peace now" of the left. Yet Kadima under Olmert has failed to articulate a coherent centrist position, especially after the collapse of the unilateral withdrawal option following the withdrawal from Gaza, which has resulted in daily rocket attacks on Israeli towns in the south. The result is that the next election may well be a contest between Likud and Labor, back to the old mode of left versus right.

With Gaza burning and Iran approaching the nuclear threshold, Olmert will continue to be preoccupied with political survival, in the face of both ongoing corruption investigations and coalition unrest. In allowing Olmert to once again remain one step ahead of the law, the Winograd commission committed the same mistake it attributed to the prime minister's conduct during the Lebanon War: missing an opportunity to extract Israel from danger.

Yossi Klein Halevi is a contributing editor of The New Republic and a senior fellow at the Adelson Center for Strategic Studies of the Shalem Center in Jerusalem.

By Yossi Klein Halevi