Dialogue with Syria could “save” Ehud Olmert

By Mario Sznajder (for Safe Democracy)

Mario Sznajder analyzes the options open to Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to avoid the consequences of the scandals and ongoing instability that are threatening his administration. In Sznajder‘s opinion, despite Olmert‘s comfortable parliamentary support, the current crisis could escalate and force his resignation. There is, however, one step that Olmert could take, which he has ignored until now, to allow him to survive his current political nightmare: the opening of negotiations with Syria.

Mario Sznajder is a Leon Blum chair and professor of political science at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He is a researcher for the Truman Institute for the Advancement of Peace. He has published hundreds of articles in scientific journals on fascism, human rights, democracy, and the Middle East.

THE INTERNAL POLITICAL SITUATION IN ISRAEL has become complicated in a paradoxical manner. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert holds a comfortable majority in the parliament, which in normal times would assure him a long political career. But these are not normal times. The succession of corruption and abuse of power scandals, involving members of parliament, several ministers, and Olmert himself, has completely discredited the Prime Minister, and generated enough political instability to lead many speculate that the current administration will not last through the end of 2007.

Despite this situation of political instability, the opposition –including the Likud party headed by Benjamin Netanyahu, the coalition Labor party led by Amir Peretz, the Shas party led by Eli Yishai, and the Israel Beiteinu (Israel Our Home) party led by Avigdor Liberman– has nothing to offer as an alternative to the failed administration of Ehud Olmert. Politicians in Israel, it appears, have run out of positive long-term solutions to the crises and conflicts confronting their small nation.

Ehud Olmert’s centrist party, Kadima, also lacks a solid political and ideological foundation. Israeli politics has become more of a frenetic race towards the unknown, than anything else.

Two internal dangers darken Ehud Olmert’s political horizon as Prime Minister of Israel. The first will take a concrete form when the Winograd Commission –charged with investigating the failures of Israel’s War in Lebanon of 2006– publishes its preliminary report. Past investigatory commissions and their reports provoked the resignation of the Commander of the armed Forces, General Dan Halutz, and the Commander and Chief of the Israeli Police, Commissioner Moshe Karadi.

Both men had lost all credibility and support following the reports on their negligent professional handling of the War in Lebanon.

The resignaton of Halutz and Karadi could help Olmert in case the Winograd Commission finds that the failures of Gaza and Lebanon were the sole responsibility of the military. Yet, this kind of result is highly unlikely. Israel is a democratic state, which means that the military is under complete civilian control, democratically elected, and headed by none other than the Prime Minister.

If the Winograd Commission finds that the failures and crises of Gaza and Lebanon were the responsibility of the military, Olmert would then have to explain why civilian control over the military failed, or to admit that the democracy does not work at all. In both cases, it is probable that there would be a strong movement calling for his resignation. Loudest among this movement would be the citizens of the North of Israel –left defenseless before the attacks of Lebanese missiles–, the political opposition, and the military reserves who were negatively affected by the poorly conducted War in Lebanon of 2006.

Ehud Olmert is also facing a series of scandals related to accusations of corruption and the abuse of power. The first of them has to do with the actions of one of the largest banks in Israel while Ehud Olmert was Minister of Finance. Another deals with the illegal nomination of friends to political office while Olmert served as a leader of Likud. And the last has to do with the illegally discounted purchasing of residences for Olmert’s personal acquaintances.

These scandals will serve as the seeds of Olmert’s own forced resignation, despite his comfortable parliamentary support. Parliament itself is riddled with scandals and has lost a great deal of legitimacy. And although newly elected in March of 2006 and thus less willing to submit to the will of the people, it may be given no choice in the matter.

Is this a deterministic vision of the political future of Ehud Olmert and the current government of Israel? Not at all. In politics there are always solutions, limited only by reality. In Olmert’s case, there is one step –which up until now he has firmly rejected– that could permit him to survive his current smorgasbord of crises and scandals. The step has to do with the opening of negotiations with Syria.

Olmert should negotiate with Damascus not only because President Bashar al-Assad declared his unambiguous desire to open talks, but also because Syria is rearming itself with Iranian financial backing and Russian weapons that are both modern and effective.

Even more importantly, however, political dialogue with Syria would put pressure on Hezbollah to abandon terrorist and guerrilla tactics and complete its conversion into a legitimate political force. Dialogue –which today is becoming easier thanks to the US’ change in attitude towards Syria and Iran– could facilitate the formation of a regional consensus. It is a window of opportunity for the resolution of the central problem of the Middle East: the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

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