Sunday, May 11, 2008

The Trials of Ehud Olmert and Next Steps in Israel

Anyone who pays attention to Israeli politics (which perennially vie with those of Italy for the title of 'most apathy-inducingly labrynthine') knows that Ehud Olmert is in some trouble. In some ways this isn't a new situation. He's been in trouble at least since the Second Lebanon War in the summer of 2006, and in my opinion has been overmatched by events around him since Ariel Sharon's stroke earlier that year. Still, even by the standards of his rather dubious tenure as Israeli PM, Olmert is having some pretty serious problems these days.

He's being investigated for corruption related to some putative campaign contributions. The charges may or may not have any merit. Corruption seems to go hand in hand with modern Israeli politics (even more so than with those of other countries), and frivolous charges trumped up for political advantage certainly aren't unknown. Still, I have a difficult time seeing how Mr. Olmert is going to survive this affair while maintaining any ability to effectively govern. Already hobbled by the remaining political aftertaste of his government's abysmal performance in Lebanon, leader of a shaky centrist coalition that, in its desire not to antagonize either side of the Israeli political spectrum simply fiddles while Jerusalem burns, Olmert confers no possible benefit - either to Israel or to his own legacy - by stubbornly clinging to his post. A recent scathing editorial in Haaretz makes the case for Olmert's removal better than I ever could:

...the prime minister must realize he has lost his ability to continue leading the state. After the disclosure of the investigation's details, few people believe him, believe in him, lend credence to his statements and accept his claims that he is capable in his situation of focusing on affairs of state. His position has been undermined, even if he continues to bear the title of prime minister. He is incapable of leading the state into battle, if such were to become necessary, just as he is incapable of reaching a peace agreement with the Palestinians or Syrians. If he tries to initiate anything out of the ordinary, the criminal investigations against him will be exploited to undermine his authority to make or implement decisions.

The day-to-day running of the state is also vulnerable to the continuing erosion of his position resulting from the suspicions swirling around him. What then is the logic behind perpetuating the government in the conditions in which Olmert has trapped himself?

My thoughts exactly. Olmert's troubles mirror those of the Israeli polity more generally. Even as an American (and thus no stranger to intractable political deadlock), I must marvel at the inability of one of the most representative governments in the world to implement crucial state policy that is supported by the great balance of its constituents. Part of this obviously has to do with the chaos on the Palestinian side and the "facts on the ground" created by the Israeli settler movement that immensely complicate any effort to solve the current political crisis (either through a deal or through unilateral disengagement), part of it has to do with the extreme political fragmentation that has arisen in Israel over the last two decades (Kadima, the largest party and anchor of the current Israeli government, has only 29 seats in the Knesset for a whopping 24% of the total - in some ways it's a wonder that the government has lasted as long as it has) and part of it has to do with the fact that the Israeli populace has completely lost confidence in its own political class. This last problem is perhaps the most troubling, because people will not sacrifice for leaders who they do not trust, and now more than ever a permanent solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will take sacrifice. Israel needs a leader, and it cannot afford to wait.

In his handicapping of the current situation, Attila Somfalvi envisions two possible scenarios following an Olmert resignation (which, despite my previous premature predictions, might actually happen this time). First, he envisions Ehud Barak pulling Labor out of the Kadima-led coalition, forcing elections. Somfalvi notes that Barak would have a difficult time justifying propping the government up any longer, and would have to trigger elections if only to prove he still has a spine.

The problem, of course, is that vagaries of political polling in Israel aside, many people think that Likud would win, presumably forging a government with the National Religious Party, Yisrael Beiteinu and a smattering of other conservative groups to prop up a right wing coalition. Some people may not think that this would be the end of the World. Sometimes, after all, the political pendulum must be allowed to swing fully in one direction in order to be able to swing back the other way. My problem with this scenario though, even if it provided moral vindication to the Israeli center-left and positioned it for future victories, is that Likud's conception of Israeli foreign relations has now become so divorced from strategic reality as to be almost farcical (a farce in which many, many people end up dead). The pursuit, in this day and age, of "Greater Israel" as a practical matter of state policy ignores every lesson learned since 1967, and unlike the 1990s, peace negotiations will not survive another hiatus while the Israeli right wing indulges its expansionist fantasies. Israel needs a government with the will and muscle to make peace. That won't come from Likud, and it won't come from Ehud Barak gloriously jumping on a political grenade.

It might come from a revitalized Kadima, and a revitalized Kadima might come from current Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni. My limited understanding is that Livni remains one of the few political figures in Israel who can command a certain amount of respect from the Israeli populace. Somfalvi seems to think that she can hold Kadima's coalition together, even though Shas may have some slight problems with her gender as well as her previous statements about the relationship between religion and the state. If she can be viewed as sufficiently separate from the many failures of Kadima's tenure at the head of the Israeli state, she may be able to muscle the Knesset into doing what is necessary to advance the cause of peace. Thus far she hasn't played her hand particularly agressively, but she may want to before too long. Too much is at stake to continue the current deadlock.

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