Al-Ahram Weekly – 28 September – 4 October 2006
Issue No. 814
Kadima and the government are in trouble as the Israeli public steps even further towards the right in politics, writes Jonathan Cook in Nazareth
Israelis saw in the Jewish New Year on the weekend with a flurry of opinion polls showing that they feel more insecure now than they have at any time over the past 10 years and that they no longer trust the leaders they elected just six months ago. Both results reflect the bitter public mood that has followed Israel’s military humiliation at the hands of Hizbullah over the summer.
A survey in The Jerusalem Post revealed that 56 per cent believed Israel was less safe than a decade ago, when the country was recovering from the assassination by a Jewish extremist of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and facing a spate of Palestinian bus bombings in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.
The same mood was present in two polls about the country’s leaders. In one published by Yediot Aharonot newspaper, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert secured the support of a mere seven per cent of respondents while the defence minister and leader of the Labour Party, Amir Peretz, received only one per cent backing. In the other poll, published by Haaretz daily, Olmert’s approval rating had fallen by more than half in six weeks, to 22 per cent, while Peretz’s languished at 14 per cent.
The beneficiary in both surveys was the leader of the Likud opposition, Binyamin Netanyahu, whose party appeared after the general election in March to be in terminal decline. He scored a 58 per cent approval rating, and was regarded as the best candidate for prime minister by 27 per cent of the electorate.
In a further sign of the growing backlash to the recent war in Lebanon, and the swing even further rightwards, Avigdor Lieberman, leader of the avowedly racist Yisrael Beiteinu party, was picked as the ideal leader by 15 per cent of those polled.
In leaks from a supposedly private meeting, Netanyahu took advantage of the surveys to crow that Olmert and his Kadima Party, formed late last year by former prime minister Ariel Sharon, as a breakaway faction from Likud, were finished. He said Kadima would lose so many voters over the coming months that it would not survive till the next election.
Netanyahu said he would do nothing to precipitate such dissolution but rumours this week suggest he may have been economical with the truth. According to reports, Netanyahu secretly met with Olmert’s unhappy Transport Minister Shaul Mofaz, a former military chief of staff and ex-defence minister, who has been intimating repeatedly that the government’s incompetent handling of the Lebanon war would not have been possible under his command.
Netanyahu is said to have offered Mofaz back the defence minister’s job under a government led by him if Mofaz breaks from Kadima, returns to Likud and brings with him 10 Kadima MPs. Given the numbers inside the Knesset, Netanyahu would have a shot at forming a new government if 11 Kadima MPs were to defect to Likud.
Both Netanyahu and Mofaz said they had met “socially” a month ago, and denied that they were plotting against Olmert.
On Sunday night another former chief of staff, Moshe Yaalon, widely tipped as a possible challenger to Netanyahu for the Likud leadership, told Israeli television that he had no intention of entering politics.
Nonetheless, Yaalon has been leading the chorus of criticism of Olmert, Peretz and current Chief of Staff Dan Halutz, calling on them to resign for their failures in Lebanon war. In the current fearful mood, Yaalon — a military man with a proven track record of dealing successfully, at least by Israeli standards, with the Palestinian Intifada — may be able to present himself as a safe pair of hands.
Sensing danger, Olmert took the opportunity of a New Year interview with Haaretz to belittle the performances of both Yaalon and Mofaz as chiefs of staff. He said the Intifada, which he hinted had posed no serious threat to Israel, had not really tested Yaalon, whom he referred to by his nickname “Boogie”.
“What war exactly did Boogie conduct? … What is [Operation] Defensive Shield? Going into the Jenin refugee camp? That is a war? With all due respect, neither of them [Yaalon or Mofaz] have conducted a complex international political campaign like the one conducted now, and neither of them can show me experience that would make me say sorry, really, with that kind of experience, maybe it would be better if you handle this business.”
Instead Olmert implied that faults in the Lebanon war were the responsibility of current military commanders. He denied that either Halutz or Amos Yadlin, head of military intelligence, had told the cabinet — as they have claimed — that the war’s goals had been exhausted after the first week and that the next four weeks of fighting contributed nothing strategically. “Under no circumstances did the military make the statement that, from the perspective of attaining military goals, we could stop. Never. The army always asked for more time, another 10 days and another 10 days.”
But despite Olmert’s best efforts, he is failing to deflect criticism. His reluctant decision to appoint an independent judicial panel, the Winograd Committee, to investigate the handling of the war by the government and army has failed to placate those demanding a full commission of enquiry that would have more wide-ranging powers to call witnesses and recommend punishments.
Doubts about the effectiveness of the committee, which will not start its hearings until the holiday season ends in a few weeks, were reinforced when Attorney- General Menachem Mazuz warned that Winograd would not have the power to make recommendations concerning Olmert.
In interviews, Olmert has said he was forced to appoint the panel when the separate inquiry supposed to investigate the army broke up. When asked if he would honour the Winograd Committee’s recommendations, Olmert replied evasively: “I don’t have to make a particular pledge. It derives from the very fact that I appointed it.”
Yet another poll showed that 44 per cent of Israelis had little or no faith in the panel.
In a sign of the continuing anger towards Olmert among significant parts of the public, the Israeli premier found himself being heckled at a meeting of his Kadima Party in Tel Aviv last week by dozens of army reservists who served in Lebanon. “Take responsibility,” one was reported to have yelled, while others referred to a much- voiced complaint that some of Olmert’s children did not serve in the army. One father of a soldier who died in Lebanon shouted that Olmert was murderer.
Halutz, too, is in trouble with senior commanders and reserve officers who have been complaining about poor planning and lack of equipment during the war. Revelations that serious mistakes were made in the fighting because the air force, which Halutz previously commanded, had more up-to-date maps than the ground troops have further tarnished Halutz’s battered reputation.
At the weekend it was reported that an internal army inquiry had discovered that on average 460 unauthorised phone calls were being made a day by senior commanders to journalists, most of which were presumably to brief against Halutz. The reticence to speak out was finally broken last week when Ilan Harari, the army’s chief education officer, told a conference of commanders that Israel had lost the war in Lebanon.
In addition to the looming Winograd investigations, Olmert is also being investigated by the state comptroller over a string of dubious property deals in which he pocketed hundreds of thousands of dollars. Critics claim that in return Olmert offered political favours.
Al-Ahram Weekly – 28 September – 4 October 2006