Olmert: Doing Herod Proud

King Herod "the Great", builder of the majestic stone walls of ancient Jerusalem, Masada and more, must be smiling. It took 2,000 years for Israel to be led by a similarly great "stone-waller."

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is in Washington this week, meeting with President Bush. Though found guilty of gross malfeasance by the special commission that he himself hand-picked to examine the failures of last summer’s inconclusive war against Hizballah, he has managed to weather its interim report, now awaits the final report due in August and is riding a new-found lease on political life. Given the legal "squiggle room" at his disposal, it is conceivable he could delay implementation of even a clear demand for his resignation for another year, thereby enabling him to complete three of his four year term. Given Israel’s frenetic, no holds barred democratic system — politics by means of verbal fratricide — this is no mean feat.

Ehud Barak, former Chief of Staff and Prime Minister, has just regained the leadership of the Labor Party and has joined the Olmert cabinet as Defense Minister. The new "two-Ehuded" coalition has a reasonable chance of hanging in there (or of hanging together) and even of providing effective government. Olmert has been further strengthened by the disgrace of Tzipi Livni, his foreign Minister and chief rival for leadership in the Kadimah party. The rising star of Israeli politics until recently, Livni lost her reputation for being an honest, straight spoken politician (as rare in Israel as a July rain), literally overnight, after artfully backing away from her demand that Olmert resign. No less important for Olmert, Shimon Peres, holder of the Guinness Book record for more elections lost than any other politician in human history, finally won one, elected to the purely ceremonial position of president. Olmert’s only other potential challenger within the Kadimah party, Peres has now been locked into the impotent presidency where he will have seven years to plan his next "comeback kid" attempt to be elected premier, at the youthful age of 91. (Don’t discount his chances, we are talking about Shimon Peres.)

Olmert thus arrives in Washington strengthened at home, but facing daunting challenges externally. The Palestinians, never, ever, ones to "miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity", have done it again — big time. The Palestinian Authority (an oxymoron if there ever was one) has finally imploded in civil war in Gaza and Hamas has taken over, as it may soon do in the West Bank as well. For the Bush Administration, which had recently invested time, effort and diplomatic capital in a renewed peace process — only those with a profound and sincere misunderstanding of the Middle East could have done so — all that is now left is to seek to turn this latest self-inflicted Palestinian tragedy into a forlorn basis for renewed diplomacy. The good news is that Olmert will not face pressure from Bush to make undo new concessions to appease the corrupt and ineffectual Palestinian Authority. The bad news is that the already comatose peace process is closer than ever to death and Israel now faces Iranian threats on virtually all fronts.

Hamas in Gaza is rapidly taking on the role of Hizballah in Lebanon, as an Iranian proxy right on Israel’s border, and will probably soon do so in the West Bank, as well. Masters of asymmetric warfare, Iran is providing its extremist proxies with weapons, training, financing and operational direction, even some personnel, to prosecute the war against the "imperialist, murderous, racist, Zionist regime" (a.k.a. the State of Israel), just as it is doing with the insurgents in Iraq, against the "imperialist, murderous, racist Great Satan" (a.k.a. the United States.) Iran has also greatly broadened its security ties with Syria and the two are now sharing weapons. Armed with Iranian support and a misunderstanding of Hizballah’s successful identification of Israel’s week points last summer, Bashar Assad may be about to make the same mistake his father made thrice — underestimating Israel’s determination and capabilities. Some informed sources even believe that a Syrian/Hizballah/Iranian inspired conflict with Israel could begin as early as this summer.

If an Iranian threat on four fronts is not bad enough, the true problem facing both Olmert and Bush, is the rapid progress of the Iranian nuclear program, which should be the primary topic on their agenda and which hopefully will not be sidelined by immediate events. With something like 1,600 centrifuges now running in Natanz, Iran may be only 2-3 years from an A-bomb. Time for stopping the program is thus running out rapidly.

If truly painful sanctions are not imposed on Iran soon — and even this is probably insufficient to dissuade Iran from pursuing a nuclear capability — the U.S., Israel and the world will be left with few options: a naval blockade, military strikes, or living with a nuclear Iran. With Israel overburdened by the threat of imminent hostilities with Syria, Hizballah and the Palestinians, and the U.S. preoccupied with Iraq, it can only be hoped that the two countries do not lose sight of this over-arching issue. The Palestinian issue can wait and in any event, there is only one constant factor in the volatile Middle East that the U.S. and Israel can count on — the Palestinians’ ability to continue doing everything possible to undermine their own cause.

So a president in trouble and a prime minister who has averted trouble so far, meet in Washington. The sad thing is that Olmert, a smart and devious political operator in the best sense (a precondition for success in Israeli politics), had and may still have, the potential to be a great premier. Unfortunately, he has been so discredited by his failures during the 2006 war in Lebanon, that he may now become over-cautious and gun-shy, in a situation in which military measures may be called for against Hamas, Hizballah, Syria and, above all, the existential threat posed by Iran. Bush, too, burnt by his experiences in Iraq, may be loath to make the difficult decisions posed by these issues.