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Olmert Besieged

Prepared by: Eben Kaplan
Updated: May 2, 2007


Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s political future has long seemed dim, but a new report may cast it into complete darkness. The Winograd Commission, a government-appointed group of independent investigators examining missteps in last summer’s war in Lebanon issued a damning assessment of Israeli leaders. Variations on the word “fail” appeared a whopping 175 times (Economist), roughly once per page, most notably where Olmert is charged with “a serious failure in exercising judgment, responsibility and prudence.” In an interview with’s Bernard Gwertzman, Mideast expert David Makovsky says Olmert was a lame duck leader, but the Winograd report leaves him a “dead duck.”

With his approval ratings at an almost unfathomable low—below 3 percent—and opposition leaders clamoring for his ouster (NYT), the report could prove the knockout blow for Olmert’s political career. Even Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, Olmert’s fellow Kadima Party member, urged him to resign (al-Jazeera). In a televised address, the prime minister said he has no intention (BBC) of doing so, and that he plans to implement the commission’s recommendations, which include involving the Foreign Affairs Ministry in security decisions, overhauling the National Security Council, and creating a crisis management center in the prime minister’s office.

Olmert points out that at the time of the Lebanon invasion, he had support from his cabinet, opposition leaders, and the Israeli public. Perhaps with this in mind, the Winograd report comes down heavily on the government across the board. Singled out for blame is Defense Minister Amir Peretz—described as ignorant of military affairs—and Army Chief of Staff Dan Halutz, who according to the report failed to tell political leaders that the army was unprepared for the war. Halutz resigned in January, and Peretz may not survive (CSMonitor) his Labour Party’s leadership vote later this month.

For the most part, the Winograd Commission’s report doesn’t contain new sentiments or information. Just days before its release, two Israeli journalists published a book documenting many of the same failures (Haaretz). Still, such a sharp-tongued rebuke coming from an official inquiry emphasizes for many Israelis the shortcomings (JPost) of their leaders. With Hamas and Hezbollah a constant threat and Iran ever menacing, Israel needs a steady hand at the tiller. The report was celebrated (Ynet) by Hezbollah leaders as supporting their previous claim of victory in last year’s conflict. Looking forward, Haaretz frets Olmert and Peretz are “unfit to run the next war.”

If not Olmert, then who? A poll by Israel’s Channel 2 television station indicated former Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, of the right-leaning Likud Party, is the front-runner (JPost). Trailing well behind are Livni and former Labor Party Prime Ministers Ehud Barak and Shimon Peres. But experts say many Israelis find Netanyahu troublesome, and the lack of a clear-cut alternative may prolong Olmert’s political career. This Backgrounder explains Israel’s complex political system.

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