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Makovsky: Olmert ‘A Dead Duck’ Politically

Interviewee: David Makovsky, Director, Project on the Middle East Peace Process, Washington Institute for Near East Policy
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
May 1, 2007

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David Makovsky, a leading expert on Israeli politics and former executive editor for the Jerusalem Post, says Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s popularity was so low before the Winograd Commission report that he was in effect “a lame duck.” Today, following the report’s release, Makovsky says he appears to be “a dead duck,” and it is virtually inevitable that he will be forced to resign. As to his successor, Makovsky predicts either the long-time Israeli political leader Shimon Peres or the country’s Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni.

Israel’s Winograd Commission report on the early phases of the Lebanon war last summer was devastatingly critical of every official it discussed, including Prime Minister Ehut Olmert, Defense Minister Amir Peretz, and Lieutenant General Dan Halutz, who has already resigned as chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). What did you think of this report?

I think it was remarkable in its scope. Never in Israel’s fifty-nine years has there been such a painstaking reexamination of Israeli decision making surrounding major issues such as the launching of a war. Most of the 150 pages are heavily footnoted from cabinet transcripts, and it also includes testimony of many of the dozens of people who testified before the panel. It is in keeping with the tradition in Israel, whereby Israel enters into periods of self-scrutiny in the aftermath of difficult wars, dating back to 1973 [the so-called Yom Kippur War against Egypt and Syria] and including 1982 [the first Lebanon war].

Ultimately, and this is part of Israel’s qualitative edge in the Middle East, Israel learns from painful examination of the past. It learns from its mistakes, and it corrects them and emerges resilient. By the way these 150 pages are only on the first five days of decision making. There’s a follow-up report planned as well [in August]. If it leads to structural changes down the road, I think it will be critical to have a more integrated national security decision-making process, whereby civilian analysts are given greater weight in a system that until now has been dominated by Israel’s defense establishment.

In April 1974, following the October 1973 war which had caught Israel largely by surprise, Golda Meir resigned as prime minister after post-mortem reports on the war. Do you think Olmert can last in office? He says he’s going to stay, but virtually every news organization in Israel has called for him to quit and there are public protests planned. Even people within his Kadima party are calling for him to quit.

Olmert is in an exceedingly difficult position. Like with Golda Meir in 1974, the Winograd report didn’t call for Olmert’s dismissal, but it seemed to insinuate that because it said it will have a follow-up report on the next month of the war, which was even more difficult than the first few days. And it said that it reserves the right to make explicit recommendations. The report is focused on three people—the chief of staff, who has already quit, the defense minister, who is expected to be replaced next month at his own Labor Party elections, and Olmert. So I would argue that time is running against Olmert for three reasons. One, the the report was written in a tough manner and there’s a broad hint that the follow-up report will explicitly call for dismissals. Then there are two other factors: One is the Labor Party’s convention on May 28. The defense minister is expected to be replaced by either Ehud Barak or Ami Ayalon. Barak is Israel’s most decorated soldier, former chief of staff of the IDF, and former prime minister. And Ami Ayalon is former head of the Shin Bet [the internal security agency] and former head of the navy. Ami Ayalon announced today that he will not join a government led by Ehud Olmert. That puts a lot of pressure on Barak to do the same thing. Labor is Olmert’s junior coalition partner. So if he doesn’t have the Labor party, he doesn’t really have a coalition.

If Labor leaves the coalition, will that force new elections?

I think so. There are all sorts of theories that you could cobble together to keep Olmert’s government in power. But I think if Labor leaves, it’s over. Then, you’ve got another factor inside Kadima. Kadima was an astonishing novelty in Israeli politics, the first time since 1948 a party that was neither Labor nor Likud had won. Now this party was basically a creation of Ariel Sharon [of Likud], who was furious at the open rebellion within his own party at his decision to pull out of the Gaza Strip in 2005. He took a good chunk of the party with him to found this new party Kadima.

But he was stricken by a massively debilitating stroke. This party, you know, has hardly any political institutions. Therefore, the temptation for its members that wish to survive politically will be to say, maybe we should just go back to where we came from and rewind the tape. Most of them have come from the Likud. I think almost 18 out of 29 Knesset members come from either the Likud or from groups that you would consider satellites of the Likud. So there’s a great temptation here for this party to just dissolve. And I think the way for this party to survive is for its leadership to say, “Okay, we got to react fast or else this is going to be death by a thousand cuts.” And the party will just unravel. Therefore, this puts greater focus on either Vice Prime Minister Shimon Peres, a two-time Labor party prime minister, or Tzipi Livni, the current foreign minister,  as two leading figures who could emerge as Olmert’s successor. I think the failure of Kadima’s leadership to act within this month could lead to the unraveling of the whole party or lead to early elections. Most politicians don’t want early elections, unless you’re in the Likud. A lot of the parties in the coalition feel they would be punished by the voters. So in many ways, early elections are not attractive, but they could become inevitable if a decision is not taken this month.

If Olmert should resign before the Labor party convention, would the foreign minister Livni become the prime minister?

Not automatically. There is such a thing called the Kadima council that has 150 members and it’s unclear to me how an open contest would look. Since they’re a new party that seems to have lost a lot of popularity as a result of this war, I don’t think they could really withstand a bruising contest. I think basically, the two people who count the most are Shimon Peres and Tzipi Livni. And they have to come together and make a decision on who should be prime minister. There are advantages in each direction. There will be some people that would be stunned to think that in the year 2007, Shimon Peres, who had ministerial rank [as deputy defense minister] when Dwight Eisenhower was president of the United States, could be Israel’s prime minister. But others would argue that’s the sprit of the report, that you need someone with a lot of experience. And if you read the transcripts of the Winograd commission in Hebrew, you see that Peres is one of the cooler heads who at the cabinet meeting on July 12 argued against the course taken by Olmert.

That argues for him. Others say, the party needs a younger face who is very popular. And Livni is popular and is seen to be squeaky clean, very, very bright, and very pragmatic. But some will argue that she doesn’t have that experience and that’s what the report calls for. It’s hard to predict.

Olmert’s popularity was very low even before the report, right?

The polls showed his popularity at 3 percent. A lot his problems were unrelated to Lebanon, but came from a half a dozen corruption probes that swirled around him, although they have not yet reached the indictment phase.

When you’re at low single digits even before such a scathing report, you’re at best a lame duck. After such a scathing report with not a good word said, you go from lame duck to “dead duck.” And, you know, it’s a very sad moment for Olmert, who is widely seen as a very savvy politician who has had a very Westernized outlook in terms of how Israel deals with the 21st century. Yet he would be brought down by what the public and what this report sees as very hasty decision-making. The report said that he was hasty in his judgments, that he didn’t have experience. He didn’t consult with others and didn’t think through really the political objective of the war. This panel said he was overly ambitious, that Israel essentially could not destroy Hezbollah, and needed an objective that was attainable.

It’s important to note that the Winograd commission took much more seriously the critique of the minimalists than that of the maximalists. The maximalist critique of this war is that Israel did not bring its firepower to bear and it didn’t call up the reserves immediately, and didn’t go to the ground immediately to get the Katusha rockets out of range of Israeli areas. The minimalist critique was to say that it wasn’t really an attainable objective to demolish Hezbollah, the objective should have been much more thought out, and the steps should have been taken to see if there were diplomatic alternatives to obtain an object.

The tragic irony for Olmert in all of this is that he can say, “Everyone wants to dump on me for this war, but the fact is that this war ended with Israel getting the Lebanese army to deploy to the south for the first time in three decades and for thousands of UNIFIL peacekeepers to constrain Hezbollah’s actions.” Olmert could say that might not have been the original objective, but it worked out somehow. He feels that he’s taking an unfair rap, and now probably no prime minister will want to take any major decisions if every decision he makes is brought under the microscope the way this Winograd report has.

So summing up, do you think it’s inevitable he has to resign?

I don’t see how he survives this. I must say I thought that if the report was less scathing that somehow he could use the emergence of a new defense minister to bolster his position and enhance his gravitas. But this report is so unambiguous and relentless that it is hard to see how the public has any faith in him to lead another war at a time when everyone thinks there are multiple challenges with Iran, with Hezbollah, with Syria, and with Hamas. Therefore, I don’t see how he’s going to survive this. If he had good standing before this report, it would be one thing, but you know, when you only have support of 3 percent of the public beforehand, it makes it impossible.

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