At the end of the Second Lebanon War, Israel rumbled at the edge of a political volcano. Demobilized reservists marched to Jerusalem demanding that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert resign in the wake of his incompetent handling of the war.
Just as the reservists' protests were gathering momentum, in walked Avigdor Lieberman, the head of the rightist Israel Beiteinu party, and saved the government. Without so much as haggling over the price Olmert would pay for his surprising support, Lieberman joined the government in the ill-defined and powerless role of strategic affairs minister.
Lieberman defended his move on patriotic grounds. The threats facing Israel – particularly from Iran – are so great, he argued, that the country can ill afford the political instability that new elections would cause. In the present dangerous circumstances, he claimed that all patriots must set aside differences to defend the country – under Olmert's leadership.
Unfortunately, even if his motives for supporting Olmert were as pure as he claimed, his decision was ill-advised. The same government that led Israel to defeat against Hizbullah maintained its incompetence after the war to the point where Israel's strategic rationality has been tattered beyond recognition.
The question now is what will happen politically in the wake of Lieberman's departure from the Olmert government. Will his exit be as insignificant as his tenure in office, or will it spark the disintegration of the government just as his entrance into the government saved it?
All eyes today are turned toward Shas. Ahead of Lieberman's decision to pull out of the coalition, Shas leader Deputy Premier Eli Yishai told Lieberman that if the government conducts negotiations on the status of Jerusalem, his party will bolt the coalition. His promise was an odd one given that the day before he made it, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni began negotiations with the Palestinians on Jerusalem.
With Lieberman now in the opposition, it is hard to imagine Shas remaining in the government for much longer. Although Olmert is trying to convince the ultra-Orthodox party to stay on board by reinstating the Religious Affairs Ministry, as opposition leader and Likud chairman Binyamin Netanyahu noted recently, Shas voters will not be impressed if their party trades Jerusalem away for control of ritual baths and religious councils.
If Shas withdraws, Olmert would be left with a minority government of 55 members of Knesset – six shy of a majority. But with the support of the radical Left, Olmert would be able to survive no-confidence votes. On Wednesday Yossi Beilin announced that Meretz with its five seats will block no-confidence votes. The Arab parties, with their 10 seats, will similarly protect Olmert from new elections. So Shas's leaving would still not bring down the government. Others must go as well. And there are two groups that may step up to the plate. First, the Labor Party could bolt the coalition after the Winograd Committee publishes its final report on the war in Lebanon at the end of the month.
Labor Party leader and Defense Minister Ehud Barak is under enormous and growing pressure from the reservists to fulfill the pledge he made last year to take Labor out of the government if the report determines that Olmert failed in his leadership of the war. Unfortunately, Barak today is doing everything he can to back out of that promise.
Barak knows that if Labor leaves the government the Likud, not Labor, will be elected to form the next government. And so at present, he would rather stay with Olmert than allow the people to elect Netanyahu.
But like Yishai and Lieberman, Barak also knows that at the end of the day he has to consider the demands of his voters. The backbone of the Labor party is the kibbutz movement. And the kibbutz movement still sends its sons to serve in combat units. The sons of the kibbutz movement served in the Second Lebanon War. They expect Barak to abide by his pledge. If he doesn't they will make him pay for his dishonesty. And he knows it.
If Barak goes into the next election – now scheduled for 2010 – as the man who lied to his voters and kept Olmert in power, his political foes will discredit him. On the other hand, if he keeps his word, it is possible that even if he loses the general elections to Netanyahu, he could either join a Likud-led coalition or, with his credibility intact, he could set himself up to replace Netanyahu in a future election.
Second, there is the possibility that 11 members of Kadima's 29-person Knesset faction will bolt the party and form a new, independent party. With Israel Beiteinu and Shas out, if 11 Kadima faction members left the government, the opposition would have the requisite 61 votes to pass a no-confidence measure and move to early elections.
Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz has already distinguished himself as a potential leader of such a faction. In a speech this week, Mofaz placed the blame for Israel's defeat in Lebanon squarely on Olmert's shoulders.
And Public Security Minister Avi Dichter, for his part, has been outspoken in his criticism of Olmert's mishandling of the situation in Gaza and Iran's nuclear program. Given that the polls show Kadima shrinking to 10 mandates in the next election, a number of Kadima backbenchers interested in a political future would be happy to join a breakaway party. Disgruntled Labor voters, angered at Barak's refusal to resign the government, but unwilling to vote for Likud, would likely find a new electoral home with the Kadima breakaways.
THE ABOVE analysis is no mere gossip. Today, the most pressing question facing Israel is how long our politicians will allow Olmert and Kadima to remain in power.
In every sphere of government, the Olmert government is capsizing the country. Domestically, Olmert is overseeing the demise of Israel's education system. This is due largely to his political weakness. That weakness made him unable for two months to force Israel's high school teachers to end their strike. Olmert sat on the sidelines and did nothing as the nation's children walked the streets and cruised the malls while being denied an education.
Then there are the public universities, which due to the prolonged strike by senior lecturers are about to cancel their fall semester. Rather than scaring the lecturers – whose salary demands are unjustifiable – by threatening to move government funding away from public universities to private universities and to approve the opening of more private colleges and universities, Olmert has sat back and watched the university system collapse.
And then there are the security threats, which grow by the day due to the actions and inactions of the Olmert government. Although Fatah leader Mahmoud Abbas is unwilling to recognize Israel's existence as a Jewish state, and despite the fact that Abbas's security forces are actively involved in terrorism and collaborating with Hamas and Islamic Jihad in their missile offensive against Israel, Olmert and Livni are negotiating an agreement that would render Israel indefensible in the interest of "strengthening" Abbas, the moderate.
Also in the interest of "strengthening" Abbas, Olmert is refusing the pleas of the IDF to take control of Gaza and defeat and disarm Hamas's Iranian-trained, Iranian- and Saudi-funded, and Egyptian-supported army. Not only are the IDF's limited incursions into Gaza incapable of ending the rocket and missile assault on southern Israel, they serve to teach Hamas the IDF's tactics. Presently, due to Olmert's incompetence, Hamas holds all the advantages.
But Olmert and his government don't care. As his spokesman explained after Olmert accepted Lieberman's resignation on Wednesday, from Olmert's perspective, "There is no alternative to se
rious diplomatic negotiations in an effort to achieve peace… The prime minister is determined to continue diplomatic talks because he recognizes that this is the only real chance to guarantee peace and security for the citizens of Israel." So there can be no serious campaign against Hamas – only talks with Hamas's chief defender, Abbas.
Then there is Lebanon. Olmert and Livni continue to uphold UN Security Council Resolution 1701 that ended the war with Hizbullah as a great diplomatic and strategic achievement. But this is a lie. Under 1701, Hizbullah has rebuilt and expanded its arsenal of missiles to beyond pre-war levels. Under 1701, Hizbullah has reasserted its control over south Lebanon and renewed its pre-war intimidation of UN forces to the point where they have become a strategic liability to Israel. Under 1701, and in collaboration with Syria and Iran, Hizbullah has successfully paralyzed the Lebanese government by blocking presidential elections. Its co-option of the Lebanese army – already apparent during the war – has reached new highs.
As for Iran, since entering office, the Olmert government has stood on the sidelines as the US-led international community has done nothing to prevent Teheran from acquiring nuclear weapons. Today, in the wake of the US National Intelligence Estimate that foreclosed the option of a US assault against Iran's nuclear installations, Olmert remains on the sidelines. He does nothing as the Islamic Republic openly demonstrates its ability to attack Israel with missile-borne nuclear warheads. He does nothing as Iran openly expands its uranium enrichment and speaks of the day that Israel is no more.
Last week Olmert praised US President George W. Bush's friendship with Israel effusively. And yet, throughout his trip to Israel and the Palestinian Authority, both Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice made it clear that the Bush administration is no longer Israel's friend. Bush no longer insists that the Palestinians end their terror war against Israel before they can get a state. Bush insists that the Palestinian state must be "territorially contiguous." This means that he supports cutting Israel into two equally indefensible parts.
Although Olmert insists the US will take care of Iran's nuclear program for Israel, Bush took pains to make clear that Olmert is wrong to believe in him. The US president said that if Iran attacks Israel, the US will come to Israel's aid. That means that the US would only act against Iran after hundreds of thousands of Israelis were killed by a nuclear attack. That is, the US will only act when it is too late to do anything except prevent Israel from retaliating. In short, far from enhancing Israel's relationship with the US, in its infinite ineptitude, the Olmert government has come close to destroying it.
AN OLD Jewish proverb explains the difference between a wise man and a smart man. A wise man, it says, is someone who knows how to get out of a mess that a smart man would never have gotten into.
Lieberman acted wisely this week when he resigned from the government. The greatest challenge facing the Israeli people today is to convince Shas and either Labor or 11 Kadima MKs, or both, to quickly follow in his footsteps.
Originally published in The Jerusalem Post.