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Jerusalem Dispatch

Unwanted Man

"Olmert, we forgive you," read an unsigned pre-Yom Kippur ad, placed in the newspaper Maariv by the amorphous movement to oust Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. "We forgive you for the first defeat in war since the founding of the state of Israel. We forgive you for the penetration of corruption into government. We forgive you for the confused leadership. We forgive you because the job is simply too big for you."

Israelis have seldom been kind to their prime ministers, even the most beloved. David Ben-Gurion ended his career as the head of a small splinter party; Golda Meir was driven from office after the Yom Kippur War; Menachem Begin retired into seclusion after demonstrators hounded him with the daily casualty count from the first Lebanon war. But no Israeli leader has ever lost the nation's trust as quickly and completely as Olmert. Barely six months after his election, he has managed to create a consensus, from left to right, that sees him as the symbol of Israeli corruption and incompetence. In a recent poll, just 7 percent of respondents thought he was fit to govern: It is the lowest recorded figure for any Israeli prime minister. Olmert's party, Kadima, is in free-fall: It has no local branches, almost no membership, and, according to that same poll, would get 14 seats if elections were held today, down from its current 29.

Olmert has been forced to back away from plans for a unilateral West Bank withdawal, the very issue that brought him to power. (Having fought a war in Lebanon and Gaza, the two fronts from which Israel had already unilaterally withdrawn, Israelis are in no mood to consider a third round.) The result is a government without a policy. Olmert's Lebanon strategy, too, is in shambles: Israeli military intelligence is warning that an emboldened Syria is considering war, and Hezbollah is rearming under the cover of the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (unifil)--indeed, so far, the only combatants unifil has confronted have been Israeli soldiers.

Meanwhile, Olmert could face several criminal investigations, including allegations that he sold one apartment for an above-market price to a campaign supporter and bought another for a below-market price in exchange for helping a contractor obtain a zoning permit. Even in Israel's politics of contempt, it's hard to recall another prime minister who has been treated with such disdain. During a recent interview with Maariv, Olmert was recounting how he had received word that two soldiers had been kidnapped by Hezbollah. And what did you do then, the interviewer asked sarcastically, "call the bank?"--a reference to the Army chief of staff, Dan Halutz, who sold his stock portfolio a few hours before the Lebanon war began.

Yet, aside from looking wan and stooped, Olmert shows no signs of breaking. In a series of interviews with Israeli newspapers on the eve of Rosh Hashanah, Olmert took advantage of the holiday season of introspection and contrition to tell the public that he has nothing to regret and no one to apologize to. He insists that he'll complete his four-year term. And he asserts that Israel won the war--even though army commanders like Ilan Harari, the outgoing chief education officer, say that Israel lost.

Olmert persists in part because he knows, better than most, the unpredictability of Israeli politics. Ariel Sharon, after all, seemed the failed leader of a declining opposition party until Palestinian terrorism resurrected him. In the 2003 elections, Olmert himself couldn't secure a leading slot on the Likud's parliamentary list and considered quitting politics altogether--until Sharon enticed him with the post of deputy prime minister. When Sharon fell into a coma, Olmert fell into the prime minister's office. And, now that the hunger strikers demanding his ouster have gone home and the mass protests against his government have subsided, Olmert is betting on outlasting the public's outrage.

Perseverance is integral to Olmert's being. When he was a leader of the right-wing Betar youth movement in the 1950s, he and his fellow Betarim were widely treated as outcasts--denounced as fascists for their opposition to socialism and their expansionist territorial dreams. Being an outsider was a mark of pride for Betar, recalls an Olmert childhood friend, Moshe Amirav: "We wanted to be a minority; it's in our genes." The most valued trait in Betar was tagar: persistence and struggle. "In the face of every obstacle," went the Betar hymn sung at movement meetings, "a fire may still be lit with the flame of revolt." Though Olmert has long since abandoned Betar's ideology of Greater Israel, he has retained the spirit of tagar--for his own, if not the nation's, well-being.

There is some justice to Olmert's claim that he has been unfairly stigmatized. He was, after all, willing to stand up to Hezbollah's provocations--unlike his predecessors, Sharon and Ehud Barak. And there is more to him than the news media stereotype of the crafty lawyer who manages, just barely, to avoid indictment. As mayor of Jerusalem, he made a point of attending the funerals of most of the terrorism victims in the city, and he visited their families. He's a loyal friend: Before becoming prime minister, every Friday Olmert would personally deliver food for the Sabbath to the widow of a political ally killed in a car crash. And he's genuinely tolerant. Even when he was a leader of the Likud's hard-line wing, his family reflected political diversity: His wife, Aliza, a former peace activist, routinely voted against him. The right has spread rumors claiming that some of Olmert's five children didn't serve in the army; in fact, four did. He has had the bad luck to be prime minister at a time of unprecedented revulsion toward the political class generally, thanks to an array of ethics scandals. But he's hardly responsible for the alleged sexual misconduct of President Moshe Katsav and ex-Justice Minister Haim Ramon.

Yet Olmert has become the symbol of the traits Israelis loathe in their national character--the self-dealing man who won't let you in on the road as you're trying to change lanes, who takes credit for successes and passes on the blame for failures. Whether or not Olmert deserves the opprobrium, he has lost the public's most basic trust. In the coming months, the prime minister of Israel may need to make the most fateful decision of any Israeli leader since Ben-Gurion declared statehood in 1948: whether to allow Iran's apocalyptic regime to go nuclear if the United States fails to stop it, or else bomb Iranian facilities and risk a retaliation attack of ballistic missiles on Israeli cities. At Israel's most existential moment, it needs a leader whose primary concern isn't his own political survival.

What will finally bring him down? Perhaps a coalition crisis: His partner, Labor leader and Defense Minister Amir Peretz, is even more discredited than Olmert and could soon be ousted from his party's leadership. Or it could be a split within Kadima, in which a rebel faction would support replacing Olmert as prime minister with Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu. Or else more accusations like the one recently made by former Army Chief of Staff Moshe "Bogey" Yaalon, who blamed Olmert for launching a senseless battle in the last two days of the war, one that killed 33 soldiers and whose sole purpose, according to Yaalon, was "spin": to make the prime minister appear decisive.

Shortly after the war ended in August, I visited the protest tent camp set up near the prime minister's office by army reservists demanding that the political and military leadership that ran the war resign. Protesters who, only a few days before, had been fighting in Lebanon wore caps imprinted with the slogan a nation of heroes, a leadership of cowards. There was a steady flow of supporters, including a busload of pensioners from the Galilee, who came to thank the soldiers and condemn the prime minister who hadn't let them finish the job. Veterans of the Yom Kippur War who had helped bring down Golda Meir came to offer advice. One father passed around a photograph of his son, who had been killed a few weeks earlier in Lebanon.

For all the evident passion, however, it was clear that the protest movement, at least in its initial phase, was going to fail. No charismatic leaders had emerged among the reservists. Worse, they had split into two factions: A few hundred meters away was a rival tent camp of hunger strikers, who opposed the demand for Olmert's resignation as unrealistic and, instead, were calling merely for a state commission of inquiry into the war. Yet it was obvious, too, that the rage that the reservists had exposed would not subside; that it was only a matter of time before another protest movement emerged; and that, no matter how much tagar Olmert mustered, his day of judgment was coming.

This article originally ran in the October 16, 2006, issue of the magazine.