If you think it strange that Ehud Olmert is still prime minister of Israel even after it’s official inquiry into the war found him to be an incompetent shlemiel, that may simply be a sign of the leadership crisis in Israel. That Olmert is a moral and political midget is plainly accepted by an Israeli public that had given him approval ratings smaller than the margin of error even before the Winograd report was published. The fact that he’s still in office after having been found to have recklessly plunged his country into a disastrous strategic defeat in Lebanon is a sure sign that Israel’s political leadership is riddled with moral and political midgets. Olmert may still be there because, to borrow a phrase from Hunter S. Thompson, in a generation of swine, the one-eyed pig is king.
Look at the alternatives on offer: Tzipi Livni, so beloved by the purveyors of political kitsch that love a good yarn, moved in for the kill, urging Olmert to resign so that she could take power while avoiding an election, but wouldn’t go as far as to resign her own post to force a choice — moral courage, eh? And then there’s the Labor Party’s presumptive next leader, Ehud Barak. Yes, that’s right, Mr. Zig-Zag, whose own skittish style helped torpedo the Oslo peace process, and who then spent years dissembling about how he was only trying to “expose” Arafat’s duplicity. Barak who withdrew from Lebanon but forgot to cut a deal with Hizballah or anyone else about what would happen there afterwards. Barak failed last time around, the very idea that he’s having another go reveals a measure of chutzpah. And then there’s Bibi Netanyahu, veritably the Newt Gingrich of Israeli politics — a self-impotant, self-serving right-wing crank with Senator Joe McCarthy’s knack for grabbing the headlines with alarmist demagoguery — and make no mistake, if there was an election now, Bibi would be the frontrunner.
It may be with that in mind — or simply the fact that most of the political class is so comfortable with its current share of power and patronage — that Olmert is surviving, so far. None of the politicians wants to face the electorate, except Netanyahu and the parties of the left.
But the stasis may be finite. That’s because the preliminary report of the Winograd Commission, issued almost two weeks ago now, covered only the first five days of the Lebanon war. It publishes its full report in July. As I wrote at the end of the Lebanon war last August, it was on the last weekend of the war that Olmert issued orders that make him morally culpable for the utterly pointless deaths of more than 40 Israeli soldiers by ordering a ground invasion with no clear strategic purpose having already decided that he would declare a cease-fire within 48 hours. If Winograd was harsh on him over the first five days, it’s only going to get a lot worse when the final report comes out.
(Hopefully that one will ask the question of the extent to which Olmert was following the Bush Administration in extended and escalating the war — even if he waded on his own, it’s clear that Washington was goading him to escalate rather than restraining him, in the hope that he could wipe out Hizballah.)
The idea that from this morbid cast of characters we are suddenly going to a bold push for peace is worse than wishful thinking. Sure, Olmert will make gestures in the months ahead, aimed at distracting the public from his failures, but in truth he is utterly paralyzed, even if he were ever serious about a credible peace process.
The parlous condition of Israel’s leadership, which shows no sign of being transformed for the foreseeable future is one half of the reason why Robert Malley and Hassan Agha argue persuasively that “the idea that negotiations conducted bilaterally between Israelis and Palestinians somehow can produce a final agreement is dead.”
They note in the opening of what is a very important piece, “Its fate was sealed in part because neither side has the ability, on its own, to close the gaps between the positions they have taken. The two parties also lack any sense of trust, but that, too, is not an overriding explanation. If bilateral negotiations have become a fast track to a dead end it is because today neither the Palestinian nor the Israeli political system possesses the requisite degree of coherence and cohesion.”
Neither the Israeli leadership nor the current Palestinian political structure is capable of achieving the internal consensus necessary to revive a bilateral peace process. The only prospect for a two-state solution, then, is if it is imposed by the international community, along the lines of what the UN is currently moving to do in respect of independence for Kosovo. While that remains the only credible path to such a solution, I frankly doubt that domestic politics in the U.S. will tolerate going there for the foreseeable future.