If last Rosh Hashanah you had asked the average Israeli whether Ehud Olmert would still be prime minister this Rosh Hashanah, the great majority would have said no.
The less-than-successful Second Lebanese War, most people thought, would force him to leave the political arena. But Mr. Olmert still sits in the prime minister’s chair, to which he is attached by some extraordinarily strong superglue.
The secret of his survival is due in large measure to his ability to convince his diverse coalition partners that the alternative, new elections, would be too dangerous for them both individually and collectively.
Moreover, the coalition partners are very considerate of one another. Even if the representative of one or another party does something outrageous, they avoid an overly critical reaction so as not to rock the boat.
When the spiritual head of Shas, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, had the audacity to suggest that soldiers killed in the Second Lebanese War had perished because they hadn’t been sufficiently observant, there was scarcely a response from the parties who are partners with Shas in the coalition. The only strong response, at least in Israel, came from the many modern Orthodox parents who lost sons in the conflict.
While the fact that Olmert has survived to this Rosh Hashanah is something of a miracle, his survival for another year will demand a far greater miracle.
Prime Minister Olmert and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas are now taking the first tentative steps toward fashioning a final status agreement. This will demand compromises that people in both Israel and the Palestinian areas will find it hard to accept. Also of importance is the fact that both leaders are weak. Abu Mazen (as Abbas is commonly known) has lost the Gaza Strip and has tenuous control of the West Bank. And Olmert is even less popular at home than George W. Bush is in the United States.
Perhaps the major explanation for Olmert’s political survival is the lack of a plausible alternative. Assuming that any agreement with the Palestinians will involve substantial Israeli concessions, it is hard to imagine any array of parties that would agree, for example, to evacuating almost all the West Bank and Golan Heights settlements, a withdrawal from East Jerusalem and the return of a token number of Arab refugees.
It would be easier to form a stand-pat, Likud-led coalition that would argue that an agreement safeguarding Israel’s vital interests can’t be achieved in present circumstances.
But there is yet another possibility. With the Iranian nuclear threat said to be growing day by day, some kind of national unity government may emerge, based on the premise that this is not the time for politics as usual and that definitive solutions will have to be postponed for at least several years. Such a government would presumably be led by a person enjoying near-universal respect.
It is hard to guess whether such a person can be found. But one thing is for sure: it won’t be Ehud Olmert.