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Thursday, July 31, 2008

Can Israel recover from the Olmert era? (TNR)

From Yossi Klein Halevi in The New Republic:

Is it really time for eulogies? Is the abyss known as the "Olmert era" closing? Ehud Olmert has been eulogized so often that, even now, after announcing his intention to resign as Israeli prime minister when the Kadima party holds primaries for a new leader in mid-September, some Israelis don't quite believe it. What's the catch, they wonder?

Like a parody of Jewish survival, Olmert has persisted, indestructible. The Lebanon fiasco of summer 2006 ended the careers of defense minister Amir Peretz and IDF chief of staff Dan Halutz, but Olmert lingered. So far, he has evaded a half-dozen police investigations. (Israeli joke: What do Olmert and the Torah have in common? Parshat hashavuah--a phrase that means the weekly Torah reading but could also mean the "scandal of the week.") He admitted to receiving cash in envelopes from New York fundraiser Morris Talansky, and Israeli newspapers have published copies of letters Olmert sent to prominent businessmen soliciting help for Talansky's business interests. But still the indictment tarried.

Then came the revelation that he may have subsidized family trips with funds stolen from the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum and from an organization for handicapped children--a scandal the press called "Olmert Tours." How, we wondered, could even he survive that one? But Olmert--portrayed in one newspaper caricature as a bandana-wearing contestant in the reality show "Survivor"--has continued to make life and death decisions for the Jewish state.

Olmert is the embodiment of what has been, for Israel, the year of scandal: a president accused of rape, a finance minister accused of massive embezzlement, a deputy prime minister found guilty of forcing his tongue into the mouth of a young woman soldier. Olmert, two years after assuming office and promising to make Israel a more "fun" place to live, leaves us a nation in shame. He went to war in Lebanon to restore our military deterrence and destroy Hezbollah's military capacity. Instead, he shattered Israeli self-confidence in our ability to defend ourselves, and empowered Hezbollah as the strongest force in Lebanese politics, with an arsenal three times larger than it possessed before Olmert's war.

Olmert is the first Israeli leader--perhaps the first democratic leader anywhere --to threaten his own country with destruction if it rejected his policies. Israel, he warned, is "finished" if it didn't withdraw from the West Bank. Yet in failing to defeat Hamas, he has insured the impossibility of a two-state solution for the foreseeable future, leaving us without a political or military option.

Perhaps Olmert's greatest offense was in debasing our public discourse with terms like "Talansky's envelopes" and "Olmert Tours," diverting our attention from the imminent nuclearization of Iran and the growing power of Hezbollah and Hamas. Instead of focusing on Israel's survival, we have been preoccupied with the melodrama of Olmert's survival.

Now comes the hard work of restoring sanity to Israeli politics. Neither of Kadima's leading candidates to replace Olmert--Foreign Minister Tzippi Livni and Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz--has the trust of the public. Livni is seen as honest but ineffectual, lacking minimal security credentials; Mofaz, though a former IDF chief of staff, is a lackluster politician with a credibility problem. (As a former Likud leader, he promised to remain in the Likud and immediately abandoned the then-sinking party for Kadima.)

Whoever wins in the Kadima primaries will almost certainly try to create a national unity government that will include the Likud. So far, though, the Likud is insisting it will remain in opposition until general elections are held. But that could abruptly change if Israeli military intelligence concludes that Iran is about to go nuclear--a threat whose neutralization requires the credibility of a unity government. The emergence of such a government will be the most telling sign that the country is beginning to heal itself from the tabloid scandals of the Olmert years and is now ready to restore Israeli deterrence by dealing with the Iranian crisis.