Friday, May 11, 2007

Dumping on Olmert

My reluctance to join the dump Olmert bandwagon arises not from the mild contrarian streak occasionally on display in this space. Nor is it the product of admiration for Israel’s battered, bewitched and beleaguered Prime Minister. He was the wrong person in the right place when the job fell into his lap after Ariel Sharon was felled by a stroke. It was also a bad stroke for Israel and, likely, for Mr. Olmert’s unsalvageable reputation.

Wars are chock full of mistakes, such things as death by friendly fire, wrong or inadequate intelligence, strategic miscalculations and troup or armament shortages. Those who triumph rarely are subjected to searching public scrutiny of what went wrong, for victory mutes questions. The losing side – or the side that doesn’t win even if it doesn’t lose – isn’t spared. There are public inquiries and calls for heads to roll, as in fact they usually do.

Israel fared far better in the Second Lebanon War than most Israelis now acknowledge. Enormous damage was inflicted on Hezbollah. Its leader, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah said as much when he declared more than once that he would not have authorized the kidnapping of two Israeli soldiers had he known how fiercely Israel would respond. But that isn’t good enough, especially since some of the miscalculations were serious and blatant. Israel was not prepared militarily, there was an over-reliance on air power, cluster bombs were misused and there was a complete failure to tend to the hundreds of thousands displaced in the county’s North.

For now, in the wake of the Winograd Commission interim report, the focus is on Ehud Olmert. While the document is not as severely critical of the Prime Minister as some news stories suggest, it is bad enough, with more coming down the road when the final report is released. Not all of the criticism is justified. Olmert relied on the assessment of IDF generals. Isn’t that what civilian leaders are suppose to do? The question carries little weight because Israel is deeply in the grip of an accusatory culture. Finger – pointing is a popular diversion. This sad reality has consequences that transcend Mr. Olmert’s political fate.

His four immediate predecessors as prime minister were under serious police investigation and while none was indicted, their ability to lead was compromised. The police have been pursuing Olmert as relentlessly as Kenneth Starr went after William Jefferson Clinton. That’s apart from the multiple investigations being conducted by State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss who has usurped power in the false belief that the end justifies the means in his crusade against alleged wrongdoing.

When Mr. Olmert’s successor takes office, it’s a good bet that within a day or so the police will open a file and begin a new round of investigations. If Benjamin Netanyahu is Olmert’s successor, there will be an already opened and crammed file awaiting him. The investigations of prime ministers are accompanied by investigations of Israel’s presidents and an impressive assortment of high-ranking cabinet members. It’s a miracle that talented people engage in political activity and since miracles rarely happen, in fact, increasingly Israel’s best and brightest are unwilling to serve in government.

The accusatory mentality has been evident since the early days of the State. It has roots in the country’s party system and, I believe, in aspects of Jewish life that are not praiseworthy. This mentality has run amok in recent years, to an extent because it was not challenged. The low point – there is intense competition for this designation – came recently with the insane prosecution of Haim Ramon who had been Justice Minster for wrongful kissing, a high crime in the eyes of high police officer officials who were far less concerned by a murder committed by one of their own and by police ties to Israel’s Mafia. In Israel these days, ordinary politics can be a prosecutable offense that lands a minister and even a prime minister in prison.

It’s time for Israel to come to its senses and distinguish between wrongs that should be treated as crimes and misdeeds that should result in civil penalties. I have long advocated this change which is in line with the practice in nearly all democratic counties. Another needed reform is to allow ordinary democratic processes to determine who leads, who serves in the cabinet and so on. In its interim report, the Winograd Commission specifically noted that it would not make any recommendation for leadership changes. Although it is not likely, hopefully, Israel’s undemocratic Supreme Court will follow suit.

In a trip to Israel nearly forty years ago, I visited the old Biblical Zoo in Jerusalem. The sight of a handful of scrawny animals that seemed to be on their last legs did not deter some visitors from exclaiming how wonderful the experience was. The lesson was that any thing with an Israel label attached to it must be praised and certainly not criticized. We have given Israel a free pass on nearly everything because it is the Jewish State and has been endangered from day one. Israel is now in its sixtieth year and its time to grow up, to change that which does not work.

The accusatory state has consequences in the lives of individuals and in the life of the nation. It is a dynamic force and that is why finger-pointing has become a national sport. When it is linked to unbridled police power, the result is corruption. When it is linked to unbridled judicial power, democracy is undermined.

Mr. Olmert should leave, not because of Lebanon and not because of the investigations. He was never up to the job and Israel has been hurt. He should be replaced, but heaven save his successor from the accusers, whether they be in police uniform or judicial robes.