Israelis Call on Olmert to Resign

Getty Images

Israelis Call on Olmert to Resign

The war in Lebanon was a bungle, they say, and many believe their tattered nation can withstand the ravages of new elections better than it can any more of Olmert’s leadership.

Ehud Olmert’s first 139 days in office have been rough. But the days to come will only get rougher, as angry Israelis call for his resignation.

“It’s time to say goodbye,” read a headline in Maariv, generally a pro-government Israeli paper. Three out of four Israelis are dissatisfied with Olmert’s leadership, says a poll published in the daily Yediot Aharonot—and fully 63 percent of Israelis want him gone. Seventy-four percent say the same of his defense minister, Amir Peretz. Public protests against the government are picking up numbers, as well as some high-profile attendees.

The New York Times reported that a collection of reservist soldiers protested over Olmert’s bungling of the war against Hezbollah, demanding his resignation as well as that of Peretz and the army chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Dan Halutz. They complained at having been sent to war with poor training, “unclear missions, inadequate supplies, outdated equipment and a lack of basics, like drinking water” (August 21). “The protest reflects considerable domestic angst about the uncertain outcome of the war, the fragility of a cease-fire, general skepticism about the ability of any United Nations force to control Hezbollah and the failure to reach stated goals, like the release of captured soldiers.”

The Times story also documented a number of other protests: Reserve soldiers have directly confronted officers; one group has erected protest tents in front of the prime minister’s office and the Supreme Court; several hundred reservists printed an open letter in newspapers listing their gripes and calling for a formal investigation of the failures in leadership. Despite strong misgivings, on Monday Olmert relented and agreed to a limited governmental inquiry conducted by a former Mossad chief—a move considerably less than what his detractors are demanding of him and sure to leave them unappeased.

“The crisis is so serious that the government seems doomed in the long-term,” political science professor Shlomo Avineri was quoted by Agence France Presse as saying.

If Israelis boot Olmert, the man they select to succeed him would be the country’s seventh prime minister in 11 years. (Imagine if the American president had an 18-month term; it is excruciating enough having to survive a divisive, blood-boiling presidential election every four years.) The political chaos that number represents becomes more apparent when one looks at the spectrum of political thinking it embodies—the leftish rule of Rabin and (briefly, after Rabin’s assassination) Peres supplanted by the hawkish Netanyahu; the catastrophic administration of Barak cut short by resignation; the war general Sharon, facing the pressure of an intifada throughout his reign, swinging over a five-year span from assassinating terrorist leaders to gifting territory to terrorist leaders. Quite a wild political ride to unfold over a mere decade.

Perhaps voters were shell-shocked, then, when Sharon went comatose in January. Only 1 in 10 people in the country voted for the party he left behind—but since the next most popular party only pulled in 1 out of 14, it was good enough to make Ehud Olmert prime minister.

Olmert campaigned on a promise to extract his countrymen from the West Bank and give their land to the Palestinians, who are now governed by the terrorist group Hamas. This unilateral retreat was probably a job Olmert could have pulled off. Waging war, on the other hand, wasn’t so clearly his area of expertise. This has become painfully apparent just 139 days into his administration.

Thus, Israel is staring at two options. The first is to stick it out with a prime minister whose feeble domestic support has been trashed, and international reputation riddled with Katyusha-sized holes. The second is to brave the howling winds of uncertainty that new elections would bring.

Nowhere on Earth has a governmental system produced such a headache-inducing cacophony of competing parties and interests as Israel’s has—an artifact of a population remarkably disparate and religion-based. The current Knesset has representatives from no less than 12 political parties—parties so diverse that they will not convene on Friday, Saturday or Sunday in deference to their Muslim, Jewish and Christian members.

Events of the past year, culminating in the war against Hezbollah, have widened the political fault lines in this entity even more, making the coalition-building required of an Israeli prime minister even more difficult. And looking at the political field absent Ariel Sharon—whose legendary status enabled him to somehow keep his ship afloat even in treacherous, uncharted waters—there is nothing close to a consensus candidate who could take Olmert’s place with any kind of mandate to speak of.

So, what happens now?

What are the consequences for poor leadership that invites foreign attack and exacerbates an already poisonous and fractious political climate? How will Israel conduct itself in the drastically altered postwar environment among enemy nations that personally witnessed Israel lose its aura of invincibility? To whom will Israel turn for solutions?

What will happen when—as Israelis lock horns over these questions—Hezbollah, or Syria, or Iran, or Hamas, or any one of the several other terrorist groups camped out on Israel’s own soil, decides that the cease-fire has been nice, but it’s served its purpose; time to fire up the blast furnace of war for another day? Will a strong leader suddenly leap center stage, rally the people, the politicians and the generals, and help Israel to start behaving like a country that actually wants to survive?