Wednesday, January 11, 2006

The Olmert Era

(note: beginning with this post, I will adopt the spelling "Olmert" as used by The New York Times)

It is time now to write my last blog from Tel Aviv, for tomorrow night I return to the US. It has been a particularly amazing time to be here. Let me try to sum up at least my impressions of the political situation.

It now appears that the dark mood of the media those first 4 days of Ariel Sharon's cerebral hemorrhage has given way to guarded optimism about his chances for surviving, though still there is no reason to believe he will ever be able to return to public life. There is much discussion concerning the abominably bad medical treatment he received from his doctors since the time of his first stroke, and the finger-pointing will continue as a matter of a conspiratorial debate for a long time to come. Another weird aspect of the media coverage is the unwarranted glorification of Sharon into a kind of semi-divine political entity. It is as if the first 75 years of his militaristic life have been wiped away clean by a single unilateral withdrawal from Gaza and a brain hemorrhage. In just the last year, as the Gaza disengagement played itself out, a "security fence" was lengthened, Jewish settlements were expanded on the West Bank, and thousands of acres of land in the West Bank were seized by the government. Whatever the media annointment now, Sharon was never a "peacenik" in the mold of Barak, or even Rabin. This fact should not be lost in the media glorification now in full swing.

A week into this crisis, and the political elite remains petrified (in both senses of the word) by the enormity of the changes brought on by the Sharon hemorrhage. But just as Sharon is slowly being roused out of his medically induced coma, the Israeli body politic is awakening from its own related trauma. For the moment, transitional continuity has been provided by the stable image being projected by Interim PM Ehud Olmert, and it now seems that none of the major players will bolt the newly-created Kadima party for their former political homes. For one news cycle, Shimon Peres toyed with the idea of leaving Kadima, but by last night his ego had been sufficiently stroked by Olmert and all was well on the Peres front.

With more than 2 months to go before the election, the speculation on how ministerial positions in an Olmert-led coalition will be parceled out has begun. The big three slots are always Defense, Foreign Affairs, and Treasury -- those are the 3 biggest bureaucracies and the most coveted chairs. Olmert has apparently committed Foreign Affairs to the very able but relatively inexperienced Zipi Livni, a former Likud politician (widely touted as a potential PM) who made the switch to Kadima right at the get-go. But now what to do with Defense and Treasury? The Israeli electorate has no great confidence in either Olmert or Labor Party leader Amir Peretz on security issues, Sharon's forte. Olmert scores 40% and Peretz a meager 9% on the question: who can best deal with security issues? So Olmert cannot offer to Peretz the Defense portfolio.

What will Olmert have to give to Labor in order to seal a coalitional deal? Will Olmert offer to the near-certain junior partner Labor party the Defense Ministry, possibly turning to his old friend (and former PM, and former IDF Chief of Staff) Ehud Barak? How will this placate the substantial political desires of Peretz? Will Olmert offer Peretz (former head of the Israeli labor federation Histadrut, and not an English-language speaker) the Treasury, since Peretz is running on a domestic socio-economic agenda? Such a move would send shock waves through the business community. The truth is, there are many coalition partners which Olmert will need to induce into a partnership (and by the way, all these speculations would have applied equally to a Sharon-led Kadima). There are only so many plum-ministries, and there are so many hungry politicians. Even if Olmert wins a super-plurality on March 28, 2006, the logistics of building a coalition government will be daunting. The unpleasant haggling over ministerial seats (which is a fact of life in Israeli politics) will be in full swing on March 29. Nevertheless, it is easy to imagine a Kadima-Labor-Shinui(-Meretz?) government somewhere down the road. But then the question remains: what will such a "moderate" coalition do to bring to an end the ugly conflict with the Palestinians? Since Sharon never laid out his plans for his next incumbency, and Olmert has for different reasons not expressed his intentions, there arises the strange situation in which the electorate will go to the polls without knowing what it is voting for.

Just who is Ehud Olmert? He like Sharon is a former hawk turned realpolitik pragmatist. Born into a Revisionist household (his father served as MK in the 3rd and 4th Kenesset), he is married to a strong leftist-leaning wife. Elected to the Kenesset at the tender age of 28 in 1973, he was a nondescript back-bencher who made a name for himself fighting corruption in the national soccer league (he is a devoted Betar-Jerusalem fan, and only now at the insistence of Shabak will he refrain from going to Saturday afternoon games). He was opposed to the Camp David accords, and while mayor of Jerusalem he was responsible for decisions which exacerbated intercommunal tensions, like the opening of the controversial tunnel in the Old City of Jerusalem in 1996. After leaving the Jerusalem municipality he tried running in 1999 against Sharon for the leadership of Likud and was trounced. It was a few years later that Olmert began his move towards championing the concept of unilateral withdrawal, particularly in Gaza. He fell under Sharon's command, and ever since the two have been in sync-lock. An early indication that pragmatism will prevail in an Olmert era is the convoluted arrangement that has been hammered out today to allow East Jerusalemites to vote in the upcoming Palestinian legislative elections.

Olmert is criticized for his lavish tastes (like Benjamin Netanyahu, Olmert likes cigars) and his close association with rich businessmen. There is a hint of corruption surrounding his family's financial dealings (see Olmert, Yosi). But everyone seems to agree that he is a seasoned leader who was groomed by the master to be in the right place at the right time.

Big shoes to fill, but so far Olmert has been up to the task.

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