The Remarkable Survival of Ehud Olmert

Does the Israeli prime minister’s resilience bring peace closer? (The Economist)

EVEN those who detest Ehud Olmert profess a grudging admiration for him these days. A few months ago the Israeli prime minister looked as if he would soon be out of a job, after a damning report by a commission of inquiry into the previous summer’s war in Lebanon. Either a revolt within his own centrist Kadima party or a defection by its main partner, the Labour party, would topple the coalition government. Now Mr Olmert has a fair chance of lasting well into next year and perhaps beyond—even, some say, until the end of his four-year-term in 2010.

That might be optimistic: no Israeli leader has done it since 1981. But it still testifies to Mr Olmert’s staying power. He owes it partly to a knack for wrongfooting his rivals—notably Tzipi Livni, his foreign minister, who challenged him to resign after the commission’s report in May, expecting mistakenly that he would sack her instead—and partly to the vagaries of domestic and foreign politics. June’s victory in Gaza by the Islamists of Hamas, who reject peace with Israel, over the forces of the secular-minded Palestinians of Fatah made Israelis more sceptical of peace than ever, and thus of any more doveish policy that Labour might adopt in an attempt to launch an election bid.

And then there was the reported raid on September 6th by Israeli jets over Syria. While Israel has maintained tight censorship save for some offhand comments by Binyamin Netanyahu, the opposition leader, leaks to the foreign media, mostly from American officials, suggest that they hit some kind of fledgling nuclear facility with material or equipment supplied by North Korea. Many analysts are treating the claim with scepticism, but the continued silence from Israel and Syria about what actually happened has convinced the public that Israel must have hit something important. That has given a fillip to Mr Olmert’s abysmally low popularity.

The question is what he can do with it. Since last year, the public appetite for his original election platform—a unilateral withdrawal of Israeli settlements from the West Bank—has evaporated. Now, he is focusing on the American and Israeli attempt to boost the Palestinian president, Fatah’s Mahmoud Abbas: the idea is to improve life for Palestinians in the West Bank while keeping Gazans teetering on the edge of a humanitarian disaster, in the hope that they will turn against Hamas.

Making life hard for Gazans is the easy part. Gaza’s border crossings have been closed to all but humanitarian supplies and a handful of farm shipments since June, making the strip’s already rickety economy collapse. This week Israel declared Gaza an “enemy entity” to justify new sanctions in response to a rain of home-made Qassam rockets into southern Israel. It will begin by cutting off electricity, then fuel, and closing the crossings to all but food and medicine. Human-rights groups and aid agencies denounced the move as collective punishment of the strip’s 1.4m inhabitants, banned by international law. The UN secretary-general, Ban Ki-moon, complained too.

Making Mr Abbas more popular is harder. He is as anxious as anyone to see Hamas squelched, but risks looking to his people like a traitor. Key to the strategy is a peace summit scheduled for November, which various pro-Western Arab leaders are meant to attend in order to put their imprimatur on a joint Israeli-Palestinian declaration about a future peace process.

But the Israeli and Palestinian leaders are still far apart on what their declaration should declare. Mr Abbas wants details and timetables about how to move towards a final deal, arguing that nothing less will convince either ordinary Palestinians or Arab leaders. The Saudis, without whom the conference will have little credibility, are threatening not to show up. Diplomats are already hinting that the summit may be delayed again.

Israel wants something vaguer. Moving too fast, says a government spokesman, carries the risk of loading excessive demands on Mr Abbas’s shaky interim government. Israel, he says, is keen not to repeat the Camp David peace talks of 2000, whose collapse ended up weakening the Palestinian peace camp, strengthening the extremists and setting off a renewed onslaught of violence.

Such solicitous concern for Mr Abbas and his fellow moderates is, of course, at least partly a cover for Mr Olmert’s own political calculations. He may be stronger than before, but the right-wing parties in his coalition, the religious Shas and the Soviet-immigrant Yisrael Beiteinu, have given warning that they will abandon the government if he makes too many concessions to Mr Abbas. There is an element of bluster in such threats; Yisrael Beiteinu in particular is loth to be left out in the political cold. But it narrows Mr Olmert’s room for manoeuvre. It also means that even if the summit is successful, there are doubts about how far he can go down the path towards a Palestinian state.

Still far apart

The chances of bridging the gap between Israeli caution and Arab scepticism do not look high. This week Condoleezza Rice, the American secretary of state, made one of her flying visits to the region to try to push Messrs Olmert and Abbas closer together. She has drawn criticism from previous American peace envoys for not doing enough such diplomacy in the past, and there was no sign as she left that either of them had shifted position. Her inability to push harder may reflect the fact that even in Washington some officials have always doubted the summit’s merits.

If the summit is a damp squib or does not happen, it will be a blow to the boost-Abbas strategy. Israel has said it will start to remove West Bank checkpoints here and there, and Tony Blair, the new Middle East peace envoy, will next week explain his plan to build up the capacities of Mr Abbas’s government, but a few improvements to the quality of life in the West Bank will impress Palestinians far less than a real move towards statehood. Israel, though, does not look prepared to go out on such a limb. The summit, says the Israeli spokesman, is “important, but not the end of the process.”

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