Israel’s Lame-Duck Leader Gets Lamer

Most Israelis didn’t need an official commission of inquiry to tell them that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert made a major hash out of last summer’s war in Lebanon. When Hizballah kidnapped three Israeli solders last July, Olmert launched a massive military campaign whose stated goal was beyond reach: to end Hizballah’s existence as a military threat. Instead, Israeli ground troops found themselves bogged down in deadly urban combat with Hizballah guerilla whose tenacity and tactics the Israelis were unprepared for. That, together with the barrage of rockets into northern Israel that continued until the cease-fire went into effect, allowed the Islamist group to claim it had won a “Divine Victory” against the Jewish state, to the applause of the citizenry of most of the Arab world.

There was no surprise, then, in the damning preliminary report released Monday by the Winograd Commission, appointed by Olmert to investigate the conduct of the war amid the barrage of criticism that followed its termination — indeed, parts of it had been leaking into the media for days. Still, even Israel’s jaded commentariat found the tone of the report surprisingly harsh. Some derivation of the word “failure” appears several times on almost every page of the release.

The report’s unforgiving judgment of his stewardship of the nation’s security might have prompted a politician more sensitive to pubic opinion than Olmert is to resign. But not only has Olmert already announced his intention to remain in office, but such is the malaise of Israeli politics today that he is in little danger of being kicked out anytime soon: Israel’s opposition is deeply divided between left and right, since Olmert’s moderate Kadima party has absorbed most of the country’s centrists. And the Israeli public has grown so fed up with the corruption rampant in its political class that there is no clear popular favorite to replace the prime minister.

Olmert’s key rivals, Benjamin Netanyahu and Ehud Barak, are both former prime ministers whose track record in office failed to persuade voters to reelect them. Both men have so far refrained from moving in for the kill, lest they seem overzealous of taking advantage of what was a national calamity. Or perhaps they sense that Olmert has been mortally wounded, and will be unable to survive the Winograd judgment regardless of his own intentions. Not only have his approval ratings crashed to around 2 percent, but he is also under official investigation over allegations of financial misdoings — although these probes will take time to reach their conclusion.

For now, Israel’s politicians will be waiting to see if public opinion for giving Olmert the boot gains momentum. Another hurdle ahead for the Prime Minister is the release of the final report of the Winograd Commission, due in July, which may include a recommendation that he fall on his sword. (The report released Monday is preliminary, in that it only covers the first five days of the conflict.)

Some good may yet come of this fiasco for Israel’s military — also harshly criticized in the report — for which last summer’s war was a wakeup call. For the past quarter century, the Israeli Defense Force has been largely engaged in occupation missions, and its war-fighting capacity has eroded. The country’s top brass is hard at work on learning the lessons of what Israel calls “The Second Lebanon War,” in the expectation that there may be a third as early as this summer.

Olmert, meanwhile, could be tempted to try to shift attention away from past mistakes by pursuing a breakthrough in negotiations with the Palestinians, or even with Syria — or, conversely, by taking action against Iran, although Olmert has toned down his statements on this front and emphasized diplomacy as the solution to the standoff over Tehran’s nuclear program. But given the level of public confidence in his ability to protect Israel’s national security, he may not be given the latitude to make any dramatic moves at all.

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