After Olmert

Sometimes it feels like not much has changed in Israel in the last few thousand years. Still fighting for the same land, against descendants of ancient enemies, endless internecine squabbling and intrigue, corruption among the "high priests" in the Temple. OK, maybe I am taking the analogy a bit far, the political and personal behavior of these guys today is anything but "priestly". But the idea is right. Israel is embroiled in an ongoing political crisis, stemming from the systemic failings of its parliamentary democracy, the objective difficulties of its circumstances and the petty politics and foibles of its elected leaders.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has announced his resignation, over allegations of various shady financial and political misdeeds, now in court. Ehud, in Hebrew, means "liked" or "beloved", but Olmert was the most unpopular premier in Israel’s history, with a positive rating, at one point, of 3% (yes, three percent, no typo)! And you thought Bush had trouble…

It is a shame, because Olmert had it in him to be a great premier. Sharp as a whip, with the razor mind of the prominent attorney he was, a devious, wily politician in the best sense of the word, a must for anyone who hopes to navigate the stormy seas of Israeli politics, a man of courage, who dared to propose and even carry out dramatic solutions to some of the greatest challenges Israel faces. History, however, will remember him as the Israeli "tricky Dick", the first premier to be forced out of office due to (allegedly) gross misconduct and to lead Israel in a war which it did not win.

In mid September, Olmert’s Kadima party will hold primaries to elect his successor as party head, until which time he will stay on as premier. The two leading candidates are, Tzipi Livni, the current foreign minister and clear frontrunner among the public, and Shaul Mofaz, a former chief of staff and defense minister, now minister of transportation, the frontrunner among the party rank and file, who actually vote in the primaries.

Livni is the current darling of Israeli politics. No great charisma, no great vision, but also no bull. Just an honest, straight speaking, hard working, what you see is what you get politician, with a record of producing results. She may very well be just what Israel needs today.

In security conscious Israel, Mofaz has the benefit of having held the most crucial posts in that area. Born in Iran, his is an Israeli Horatio Algers success story. He also has the distinction of having been pulled aside by airport security for special questioning, while on a private visit to the US, because of his "suspicious" birthplace. His protestations that he was the Israeli defense minister were of little avail…

In any event, it is far from clear whether Livni or Mofaz will be able to form a new majority and cabinet in the current Knesset (parliament), in which case Olmert will stay on until general elections can be held, probably not until early spring. Israel may thus be in for a period of protracted political instability and stagnation.

It could not have happened at a worse time. While Israel is embroiled in its domestic politics, the external challenges it faces are growing rapidly. Unless someone finally does something about it, Iran’s genocidal mullahs will get a nuke sometime in the next few years, possibly as early as 2010. A dire strategic change for the Middle East as a whole, indeed, for international security and the global economy, a nuclear Iran poses a potentially existential threat to Israel. The next premier and American president, are likely to face crucial decisions, including the possible use of military force.

The Iranian threat to Israel, however, is already much closer to home, right on its borders. Hizballah, Iran’s proxy in Lebanon, has tripled its rocket arsenal since the 2006 war, in which it bombarded all of northern Israel with some 4,000 rockets. It is now thought to posses a whopping 40,000 rockets, capable of blanketing most of Israel. From the west, Hamas is firmly entrenched in Gaza, taking advantage of the current cease fire to massively build up its own arsenal of Iranian supplied rockets, in preparation for the next round. From a rag tag terrorist organization, Hamas is now benefiting from the best training, tactics, arms, funding and operational experience that Iran and Hizballah have to offer.

The ongoing talks between Israel and Palestinian President, Abbas, finally seem to have achieved some progress in recent months. Abbas’ own political longevity, however, is also in doubt and it is quite likely that Israel will soon be encircled by pro-Iranian forces on all sides, if Hamas takes over the West Bank as well. Olmert’s resignation will cause a further delay in the talks, thereby reducing even further the prospects of a breakthrough, which might have saved Abbas from what otherwise appears to be his certain political demise. The recently renewed talks with Syria will also be postponed.

Finally, Olmert’s successor will have to find some time to devote to domestic issues, as well. Here the news is far better. Though Israel’s booming economy is slowing somewhat, due to global trends, it is still robust, driven by an endlessly innovative high-tech sector, second in international importance today only to Silicon Valley. Cultural life in Israel continues to be a phenomenon of astounding scope and vibrancy, little known and unsung abroad, but a joy for those at home. At times, it seems that everyone is involved in some sort of cultural activity, art, music, dance.

Now if we could just get those politicians to dance to the right tune…


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