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The Consequences of Failure
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 minister.
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 disapproved.
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 American governments.
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 new election.
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 lame ducks.
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 of Hamas.
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 alliance.
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.