Wednesday, July 30, 2008

The Secret to Olmert's Political Survival

First published in The Jewish Press

An overwhelming majority of Israelis view Ehud Olmert as an incompetent prime minister and want him gone. This has been the case for the last two years, since his gross mishandling of the Second Lebanon War. Unhappiness with him has only been compounded by his refusal to take responsibility for his failures.

In addition, Olmert is the subject of multiple corruption investigations. Despite mounting evidence against him on numerous fronts, he acknowledges no wrongdoing in this realm as well. Meanwhile, his legal problems draw more and more of his attention away from duties of state. Why, in the face of all this, is he allowed to remain in office?

Olmert continues as prime minister even as Israel is confronted with dire threats that he either refuses to address or addresses only to exacerbate. Among the latter is his cease-fire with Hamas, undertaken against the advice of Israel's military and intelligence services, an agreement that only enables the terrorist rulers of Gaza to increase their military strength and their capacity to attack Israeli communities.

Another example is his recent engagement with Syria, a step that has helped that nation break out of its isolation, with Syrian President Assad feted in Paris and pursued as a sought-after guest by other European governments. Olmert's gambit has undermined the American policy of imposing a price on the Syrian regime for its support of terror in Lebanon and Iraq and against Israel, and has compromised Israel's own vital interests vis-a-vis Syria.

Among dangerous national problems the prime minister has simply refused to address are the glaringly obvious vulnerabilities of the home front even as attacks persist in the south and war clouds gather in the north. Similarly ignored have been key recommendations of the Winograd Commission that investigated Israel's management of the 2006 war, such as its call for an urgent restructuring of the National Security Council.

Olmert continues to embrace Mahmoud Abbas as the voice of moderation in the Palestinian camp and has failed to address the realities that give the lie to his characterization of Abbas as Israel's "peace partner." Palestinian Authority media under Abbas's control continue to vilify Israel and Jews and promote violent confrontation. PA schools and media persist in indoctrinating children to dedicate themselves to martyrdom in the fight against Israel. The danger posed by this ongoing incitement is obvious, but Olmert has not deemed it worthy of public criticism or challenge.

In response to Israel's recent exchange with Hizbullah that entailed the release of Samir Kuntar, whose claim to fame is his killing of a four-year-old Israeli girl by smashing her skull with his rifle butt, Abbas extended congratulations to Kuntar and his family.

Abbas also lauded one of the terrorists whose bodies were handed over by Israel in the exchange, a Palestinian woman whose "heroic" deed was taking part in an attack that killed 36 Israeli civilians, including 13 children, many of whom were burned to death on a blown-up bus. According to Abbas, the woman, Dalal Mughrabi, should be honored for carrying out "one of the most courageous operations in Israel"; and he declared that "we want to turn Dalal's funeral into a national wedding, a major celebration.... She will always be remembered as a symbol for the Palestinian women's struggle." This, too, failed to rouse Olmert to any criticism of his "peace partner."

Olmert is likewise silent regarding the demonization of Israel and Jews in Egyptian media; instead he praises Egypt for its role as a "moderating" force. Egypt's ongoing failure to stem the smuggling of arms to Hamas in Gaza, attested to by Israeli military and intelligence services, similarly elicits no criticism or challenge from the prime minister.

learly, part of the explanation for Olmert's continuing in office lies in a coalition whose Knesset members put their personal interests, their fear of losing their seats in a new election, above the well-being of the nation.

But the problem goes far beyond the Knesset. In fact, Olmert would have Knesset backing whatever policies he pursued, as the self-interest of the MKs who support him would be the same in any case and would assure their backing.

In contrast, a wider perversion of the political system has not only allowed a man with such failures and faults to stay in office but has actually encouraged his pursuit of disastrous policies. For example, his dealings with Hamas, his agreement to a self-defeating cease-fire, and his grossly counter-productive courting of Syria's Assad, likewise at the cost of future national suffering, as well as his silence regarding incitement in PA media and Egyptian media, were not fashioned by political conviction - the man appears to have none - but by what he perceives as mollifying those who are in a position to challenge his premiership in the face of his incompetence and apparent corruption.

That wider perversion lies largely in corruption elsewhere in the Israeli body politic; in particular, a corrupt judiciary and criminal justice system and corruption in major elements of the media. The corruption in these institutions is not primarily material and venal, as that of which the prime minister is suspected, but ideological: a misuse of judicial and police powers, and an abuse of media responsibility, for political ends. But it is no less dangerous to the Jewish state for being less venal.

Among Israeli media outlets, the government-controlled electronic media have always been left-leaning and have consistently slanted the news to conform to a leftist political bias. During the Oslo years, for example, they routinely failed to report evidence of Arafat's involvement in anti-Israel terror or the persistent calls for the murder of Israelis and ultimate destruction of the Jewish state that were then, too, an omnipresent fixture of Palestinian Authority media, mosques and schools. Israeli concessions were reported and lauded; any questioning of those concessions was either ignored or noted only to be denigrated.

The same bias has prevailed in major elements of the privately owned media. At a conference in Moscow last fall, David Landau, then-managing editor of Haaretz, the newspaper of Israel's elites, openly acknowledged, indeed seemed to brag, that his paper muted its coverage of corruption charges against political figures such as Olmert and former prime minister Sharon when those leaders were pursuing policies Haaretz deemed to be advancing the "peace process." One does not have to be a political genius in Israel to know what political steps play to the prevailing media bias.

A similar bias permeates Israel's judiciary and criminal justice system, with, for example, different investigatory and prosecutory criteria applied according to the target's political views. This has always been a problem in Israel but has seemingly become more blatant since the initiation of Oslo.

One particularly noteworthy expression of this bias was the heavy-handed use of prosecutorial mechanisms and of the police to suppress protests, demonstrations, even political organizational meetings, of those opposed to the Oslo accords. Such abuse of power became even more marked in the wake of Yitzhak Rabin's assassination in November 1995. Indeed, the government sought to tar the entire opposition with responsibility for the assassination and to treat Oslo's critics accordingly.

Certainly, some on the Left were troubled by this pattern. For example, Hillel Halkin, a longtime Labor sympathizer, wrote two months after Rabin's death: "Since the assassination there have been signs that the Labor government has embarked on a worrisome policy of using rarely invoked anti-'incitement-to-rebellion' laws in order to intimidate forms of protest and criticism that would be permitted, or at least considered less severe legal offenses, in most democratic countries." But this was a rare statement for voices in the Labor camp.

Nor did the terror war launched by Arafat in September 2000, and increased public disenchantment with what the Oslo-era delusions of the Israeli Left had wrought, translate into any lessening of the predilection to use the law and the tools of police and prosecutors in prejudicial ways against those on the political Right. Thus, in the summer of 2005, in advance of the dismantling of the Jewish communities/settlements in Gaza as well as four on the West Bank, the government created an entirely new and extraordinary body of prosecutorial procedures to deal with anti-evacuation demonstrators and resisters.

Among the novel guidelines was an order that cases brought against those accused of threatening a civil servant in the course of the expulsions "cannot be closed by the investigating unit because of lack of evidence or lack of public interest, but only with permission from the state prosecutor."

In an April 2007 hearing for a senior reserve officer who had tried to resist his expulsion from Kfar Yam in Gaza, Judge Drora Beit-Or, deputy president of the Be'er Sheva Magistrates Court, acknowledged, "We dealt differently with the cases from the Disengagement. We [in Be'er Sheva] dealt with many cases including minors and threats. Most of the defendants were first time offenders and all [cases] received special treatment." This included the months-long imprisonment of teenagers who had committed no crime and had no previous criminal record.

The discriminatory use of the criminal justice system to target leading opposition political figures was likewise a recurrent fixture of Labor Zionist governance that seemed to reach new levels of intensity in the context of Labor's promotion and defense of the Oslo process. Notable in this regard was the aggressive prosecutorial pursuit of Benjamin Netanyahu, after he had left office, for his allegedly having engaged in illegal activities around contracting work done at his private residence while he was prime minister and also his reportedly having kept gifts received while in office that properly belonged to the state.

In contrast, pursuit of then-president Ezer Weizman for allegedly having received large payoffs to advance left-wing political goals - with the amounts involved being significantly greater than those entailed in the allegations against Netanyahu - was much less vigorous.

The blatant political use of prosecutorial actions prompted Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz to address the matter in a letter to Haaretz in August, 2000. Dershowitz noted "Israel's long history of prosecuting, often unsuccessfully, some prominent public officials, while foregoing prosecution of others." He went on: "Even those who want to see Benjamin Netanyahu prosecuted appear to acknowledge that if the same test that was applied to Ezer Weizman were to be applied to Netanyahu, there would be no prosecution"; and he warned: "It would be discriminatory in the extreme to apply a less demanding evidentiary and prosecutorial standard for Netanyahu than has been applied to other political figures in the past. Any less demanding standards would reasonably raise the specter of political partisanship and discrimination."

We have yet to see how the most recent charges raised against Olmert are handled by the criminal justice system. But the prime minister would have many precedents to draw upon if he surmised that making concessions to the nation's enemies may well win him more sympathetic treatment.

Similar politicization of governmental bodies that ought to be free of partisan bias has infected other institutions of Israeli public life in a manner that has rewarded Olmert for pursuing accommodation of Israel's enemies and contributed to his continuing in power despite the real dangers his premiership poses to the nation's well-being.

In the face of sharp public criticism concerning the government's handling of the 2006 war, the Cabinet appointed a five-member commission of inquiry to investigate and report on the war's management. The Winograd Commission, named after its chairman, issued its final report in January 2008. While the document, like the commission's interim findings presented nine months earlier, is harshly critical of the government for its conduct of the war, the final report surprised many observers by not explicitly assigning personal blame to the prime minister or recommending what ought to be the consequences for him.

When asked, a short time after the report's release, why it did not call for Olmert's resignation, one commission member, Yehezkel Dror, a professor emeritus of political science at Hebrew University, responded: "If we think that the prime minister will advance the peace process, it is a serious consideration. What do you prefer, a government with Olmert and Barak, or new elections that will put Netanyahu in power?"

Professor Dror apparently recognized no problem in his political preferences influencing his work on a commission whose investigations and conclusions should have transcended partisan political considerations.

Dror has since come to regret his stance. Writing in the Forward on July 2, under the title "A Severe Verdict That Didn't Go Far Enough," he observed, "The prime minister misdirected the war, showing a serious lack of strategic thinking. Most of the blame [for the war's failures] lies with the government, and particularly with the prime minister."

Dror added, "I expected the Cabinet would resign or be dismissed after the interim report appeared.The prime minister, however, did not resign, nor was he forced to leave. I do not think this would have happened in any other parliamentary democracy. The peace initiatives, as they unfold with time, however important, seem in part to be airy improvisation, if not outright spin, lacking deep, long-term, realistic grand-strategic thinking by the prime minister based on professional political-security staff work. The prime minister stands accused of unseemly personal behavior. He is preoccupied with political survival and is distrusted by the vast majority of the public.

"Is the Winograd Commission to blame for the present sorry state of affairs? In part, speaking about my own role, the answer is yes. I regret that I did not insist on making an explicit institutional recommendation that, because of his grand failures, the prime minister should not continue to serve. This recommendation is all the more urgent and valid in light of developments since publication of our final report."

Dror's public admission of error is commendable. It also renders him virtually unique among those in Israel who have allowed partisanship to guide their behavior in positions of public service and public trust that should be above partisan bias.

But his admission is based essentially on his having seen the dangerous consequences of his error and Olmert's remaining in office. Dror does not acknowledge the larger reality that damage to the state will inevitably follow from the rot of politicizing institutions that ought to transcend narrow political considerations, even if that damage is, at least in the short term, often less dramatic than the dire straits into which Israel has been placed by Olmert's continuing on as prime minister.