Prime Minister Olmert’s Days Are Numbered

In the wake of the Winograd Committee’s interim report that found “serious failings” in the conduct of last summer’s war between Israel and Hezbollah, with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert among those bearing “primary responsibility” for the “failures,” the Prime Minister vowed to remain in office. “I intend to work to fix what needs to be fixed, thoroughly and quickly,” he declared. He very likely won’t get that chance.

First, the Committee’s interim report brought renewed focus to the deterioration in Israel’s strategic position brought about by the mishandled war. Israel has now suffered substantial damage to its ability to deter future acts of aggression. That outcome will have ripple effects well beyond Lebanon even if Hezbollah ultimately disarms. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad proclaimed, “The myth of the invincibility of this contrived and decayed regime [Israel’s Government] crumbled thanks to the faith and self-belief of Lebanon’s Hezbollah.” Salim al-Huss, former Prime Minister of Lebanon, predicted, “I can tell you that some change will take place in the political and ideological realities, owing to the collapse of the myth of the invincibility of the Israeli Army.” Ibrahim Abu Heija, a columnist in Hamas’ Al-Risala wrote, “What has become evident from the ongoing battles in the proud and resistant south of Lebanon is the confirmation of Israel’s failure in achieving its goals and the confirmation of the decline in its deterrence capability in comparison with what it was before…” Israel’s reduced ability to deter aggression against the backdrop of a hostile Iran’s rising geopolitical position in the Middle East has greatly undermined the Prime Minister’s capacity to survive.

Second, even as its war leadership failed to contribute toward Kadima’s mission to “ensure the State of Israel’s security,” the Kadima government also failed to achieve meaningful progress in advancing the bilateral Israel-Palestinian peace process that it had made the centerpiece of its foreign policy. In large part, the Hamas-led Palestinian government has contributed to that outcome and it highlights anew the dangers of “overpromising” on the peace front. The implicit assumption behind Kadima was that its willingness “to make major compromises to further the path leading to the determination of Israel’s permanent borders and peace for its citizens” would spur moderation from the Palestinian side. With such moderation, reasonable compromises that would address each side’s core needs and bring an end to the historic dispute between the two people’s would be possible. No real moderation, nor significant changes toward that end took place, and this lack of change suggested that the basic assumption behind Kadima is flawed.

Third, following the war, Israel not only failed to achieve the return of its kidnapped soldiers, it also saw Lebanon slide back to the status quo ante that it said it would not accept. Hezbollah retains its preeminence over south Lebanon. Hezbollah has rearmed. Lebanon’s Government has been unable and unwilling to conduct even informal negotiations with Israel. In short, the Israel-Lebanon relationship has not changed for the better in spite of the war. If anything, as the war resulted in widespread damage in parts of Lebanon, the increased “vengeance” factor resulting from such damage has likely worsened the dynamics associated with that bilateral relationship.

All said, the political and security environment in Israel has greatly weakened the Kadima Party. Future elections might well lead to substantial losses for the Party, especially if it fails to make the big changes necessary to respond to the Winograd Committee’s findings.

Within 6 months or less, Kadima has essentially four options:

● Stay the course: Kadima would take such a posture if it believed it could withstand the initial criticism in the Winograd Committee’s report but bring about significant changes that would blunt the criticism. Given that there is little near-term likelihood of big changes on the security front e.g., no breakthroughs are likely with respect to bilateral or multilateral peace negotiations, this option is not viable. Sufficient pressure would likely build within Kadima for a change in leadership or a “no confidence” measure would almost certainly succeed in the Knesset.

● Stay the course and implement the Winograd Committee’s recommendations: Although this course has been recommended by Minister of Strategic Affairs and Deputy Prime Minister Avigdor Lieberman, it is unlikely that the Israeli public has sufficient confidence that the Olmert Government can successfully implement the recommendations given its dismal performance in the war. “If Olmert lacked the leadership capacity to prosecute the war and to make the changes that were necessary as events unfolded, how can one be sure that he possesses the ability and judgment to act on the Winograd Committee’s recommendations?” would be the thinking. Moreover, the public could view such an approach as an attempt by the Prime Minister to evade accountability.

● Change in Leadership by Kadima: Faced with a hostile geopolitical environment that it cannot change quickly and the possibility of a dramatic loss of seats in the Knesset should the Kadima Government fall, Kadima could seek to bring about a change in its leadership. So long as Kadima’s membership believes the Party has a viable mission, it will likely seek to ensure the Party’s ability to govern. Shifting leaders offers it the strongest chance that it will maintain its ability to govern. Already, Haaretz has reported, “Coalition Chairman Avigdor Yitzhaki spoke Tuesday with several Kadima MKs. Several of those involved told Haaretz that they discussed the need to immediately replace Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, in the wake of the Winograd Committee’s report on the government’s failures during the Second Lebanon War.Yitzhaki designated Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni as the preferred heir to Olmert, which the MKs said they understood to mean that the move was coordinated with Livni.” Considering that the Winograd Committee’s report essentially spared Tzipi Livni from criticism, she is consistently far more popular than Prime Minister Olmert in Israeli polls, and Prime Minister Olmert has not been fully supportive of her, she might represent a “reasonably clean break” that would extend Kadima’s governing mandate.

● Early elections: Such an outcome would almost certainly lead to substantial losses by Kadima. There is little assurance that Kadima would emerge in a position to form Israel’s next government. With the Labor Party’s Defense Minister Amir Peretz also assailed in the Winograd Committee’s interim report, Labor could also suffer in such an election. Those outside the Kadima coalition, particularly Likud, could have a chance to make significant inroads. For that reason, Kadima and Labor are likely to make every effort to avoid early elections.

In the end, the geopolitical landscape and the realities of the options facing Kadima strongly suggest that Kadima will need to make a leadership change if it is to have a reasonable chance at extending its mandate and overcoming the damage resulting from Prime Minister Olmert’s failed leadership in the indecisive Israel-Hezbollah war. Consequently, I believe, Prime Minister Olmert’s days as Prime Minister are numbered. He could be replaced within days or weeks. He almost certainly will be gone within 6 months or less, and Kadima will make the change with or without his willingness to resign.