As a matter of principle, it is not the business of American friends of
Israel to tell Israelis who should, or should not, be their prime
That is, unfortunately, a proposition that has been observed largely in
the breach over the course of the last 30 years.
American Jews, and American politicians, for that matter, have done
their best or worst over the past three decades to try and tilt the
outcome of Israeli politics and elections to suit their preferences.
A left-leaning Diaspora Jewry often undermined right-wing Israeli prime
ministers such as Menachem Begin, Yitzhak Shamir and Benjamin
Netanyahu. The right-wing minority tried, albeit with far less success,
to give Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres, Ehud Barak, and then Ariel Sharon
and Ehud Olmert the same treatment.
American presidents have also done their best to help elect Israeli
leaders that they thought were more sympathetic to their vision of the
alliance and the peace process, and to block those of whom they
AN UNLIKELY PAIR
This pattern appeared to have come to an end in recent years with two
unlikely partners: George W. Bush and Ariel Sharon. Together, this
unlikely pair forged the closest alliance between any Israeli and
Bush gave Sharon the figurative "green light" to do whatever he thought
needed to be done to squelch Palestinian terrorists. Sharon backed
Bush's endorsement of a theoretically democratic Palestinian state and
unilaterally pulled out of the Gaza Strip. While the Gaza withdrawal
did not prompt Palestinians to give up their obsession with Israel's
destruction, it was wildly popular in Washington.
After Sharon fell victim to a stroke in January 2006, the Bush
administration's love was transferred to his successor, Ehud Olmert. As
he sought power in his own right under the banner of the new "centrist"
Kadima Party that Sharon had created, Olmert received the same sort of
pre-election demonstrations of friendship (i.e., unofficial
endorsement) that had been given to Sharon.
When Olmert hastily decided to go to war against Hezbollah in Lebanon
after cross-border terror attacks, Bush gave him the sort of wartime
backing that previous Israeli governments could only have dreamed of.
Far from seeking to limit Israel's victory, Bush gave Olmert the same
green light he gave Sharon. American diplomats stalled any talk of a
cease-fire as the administration sat back and waited for the Israelis
to roll up Hezbollah.
The only problem was that the Israelis didn't win.
Due to indecisive and foolish decision-making by an inexperienced
Olmert, his hopelessly overmatched Defense Minister Amir Peretz, and
the airpower-besotted Israel Defense Force Chief of Staff Dan Halutz,
the result was a bloody stalemate that left Hezbollah in place to
continue to threaten Israel.
This result was not only disheartening to Israelis; it appears to have
shaken Bush's confidence in Olmert's competence as well. What's
followed since then is an American foreign policy that has started to
drift back to the old pattern of searching for ways to artificially
revive a moribund peace process via even more Israeli concessions.
Now that the commission Olmert had hoped would allow his wartime
failures to slide has come in with a damning verdict, the question of
whether or not he stays in power becomes one in which overseas
onlookers have a stake.
Given the math of the current Knesset the majority of which belong to
parties that are part of Olmert's coalition, and thus unlikely to be as
successful if new elections were held Olmert must have liked his
chances of survival. But with his deputy, Tzipi Livni, poised to make
her move and the rest of this coalition of opportunists thinking their
only path to survival demands that Olmert be thrown under the bus, it
may be that his end is nigh.
All of which sets up a rerun of the old pattern of American butinskys
trying to influence the Israelis.
The Bush administration and Diaspora left-wingers will probably be
rooting for Livni as the most accommodating of the possible successors
since Labor (whose leadership may fall to Barak after Peretz loses
their upcoming primary) is no position to head this coalition or win a
Right-wingers will be hoping that Likud's Netanyahu, currently the most
popular politician in Israel (which just goes to show how far the worm
has turned in the eight years since his disastrous premiership came to
an end) can somehow force early elections.
But true friends of Israel will be not so much be concentrating on the
fates of individual politicians as they will on the nature of any
government that might follow Olmert. That's because no matter where you
stand on the issues, the thing to fear is a weak Israeli government
no matter who it might be leading it.
IN MORTAL DANGER
The danger of allowing a mortally wounded Olmert to linger in office
for as long as another two years until the next elections is obvious.
Weakened by dissension within his own ranks and the manifest lack of
confidence in his ability on the part of Israelis Olmert would be
particularly vulnerable to pressure and unlikely to take decisive
action if it was needed. The same fears might apply to a Livni-led
government if it turned out to be an equally precarious coalition of
As his own administration winds down, we can expect that President Bush
will be less likely to restrain the desires of Secretary of State
Condoleezza Rice to flex her own feeble diplomatic muscles. Though
Hamas may be plotting a rerun of the Hezbollah war in Gaza, the idea of
a renewed push to create dialogue with them might be irresistible, even
if the authors of these initiatives were the same Saudi scam-artists
who conned Rice into believing that a Mecca summit might strengthen
Palestinian "moderates," instead of co-opting them to serve the agenda
Even worse, the next two years may prove to be the moment when Israel
will be forced to confront a nuclear Iran. While hope may still exist
for some sort of solution to that lethal threat via sanctions and
diplomacy, an ineffectual Israeli leader will be in no position to deal
with this life-and-death situation. A government that has lost the
respect and confidence of Washington not to mention its own people
is not the sort of partner that an American president will trust in
such a dangerous endeavor.
The question now is no longer one of whether the Israeli left or right
and their various cheerleaders here will prevail. Rather, it's
whether a permanently crippled leader in the form of Olmert or his
successor will be allowed to hang on to the detriment of the American
As much as non-Israelis have no business choosing the Jewish state's
leadership, the one message Israelis should be hearing from their
friends abroad is this: Pick whomever you want, but don't leave a weak
government in place indefinitely. In this case, the cost of political
stasis could be enormous.