Olmert’s End–and Kadima’s Future?

I suppose that it says something about the state of American election-year politics, or the blogosphere, that the toppling of an Israeli Prime Minister has been greeted with mostly a deafening silence.

Maybe there wasn’t that much to say. I think that Aluf Benn’s analysis in Ha’aretz is pretty close to the mark. As much as I respect Yossi Klein Halevi, he can trend toward the vituperative, and his take in TNR is just that: to hear Halevi tell it, Olmert was the worst Prime Minister the country ever had, 31 months of no redeeming features.

That’s quite unfair. Olmert made some horrific mistakes, but in terms of broad strategy, I think that history might actually look a little more kindly on him (not hard given the almost-universal condemnation he receives now). He really was the first major figure in the Likud who realized that holding onto the territories meant demographic disaster for Israel. (One could include Dan Meridor, but in typical fashion, Meridor never really advocated for his point of view). To be sure, Labor and the rest of the Israeli left had been saying it for a while, but someone needed to bring at least part of Likud into the reality-based universe. Olmert took the risk of saying it, and when the world didn’t come to an end, then Sharon followed. Maybe Sharon got him to do it; but Olmert took the risk, knowing that his career was finished if it didn’t work.

As for Olmert’s corruption, if it’s true, it is just as horrific as the errors of the Lebanon War–and unfortunately, as Halevi observes, all-too-common among Israel’s political elite.

What now? In the short run, we will wait to see who wins the leadership struggle within Kadima–Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni or Transportation Minister (and former IDF chief of staff) Shaul Mofaz. Livni’s the better choice–she gets the strategic and existential imperative of a settlement, although like any sane individual she also understands that you can’t get a deal when the other side doesn’t want it. I distrust Mofaz: he jumped from Likud for political reasons, and while he was a good chief of staff, I hardly see him as a good strategic decision-maker. A long-running plague in Israeli political culture has been the cult of military men thinking that they can be political leaders. It rarely works.

I actually suspect that if Livni wins, Mofaz might take a whole bunch of Kadima MKs with him back to Likud, and prevent Livni from forming a government. Polls show Likud way ahead now, so Mofaz might figure he’ll ride the train back to Likud and become Bibi’s Defence Minister. That would be a disaster, but as they say in Israel, “Don’t worry–it will get worse.”

Author: Jonathan Zasloff

Jonathan Zasloff teaches Torts, Land Use, Environmental Law, Comparative Urban Planning Law, Legal History, and Public Policy Clinic - Land Use, the Environment and Local Government. He grew up and still lives in the San Fernando Valley, about which he remains immensely proud (to the mystification of his friends and colleagues). After graduating from Yale Law School, and while clerking for a federal appeals court judge in Boston, he decided to return to Los Angeles shortly after the January 1994 Northridge earthquake, reasoning that he would gladly risk tremors in order to avoid the average New England wind chill temperature of negative 55 degrees. Professor Zasloff has a keen interest in world politics; he holds a PhD in the history of American foreign policy from Harvard and an M.Phil. in International Relations from Cambridge University. Much of his recent work concerns the influence of lawyers and legalism in US external relations, and has published articles on these subjects in the New York University Law Review and the Yale Law Journal. More generally, his recent interests focus on the response of public institutions to social problems, and the role of ideology in framing policy responses. Professor Zasloff has long been active in state and local politics and policy. He recently co-authored an article discussing the relationship of Proposition 13 (California's landmark tax limitation initiative) and school finance reform, and served for several years as a senior policy advisor to the Speaker of California Assembly. His practice background reflects these interests: for two years, he represented welfare recipients attempting to obtain child care benefits and microbusinesses in low income areas. He then practiced for two more years at one of Los Angeles' leading public interest environmental and land use firms, challenging poorly planned development and working to expand the network of the city's urban park system. He currently serves as a member of the boards of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy (a state agency charged with purchasing and protecting open space), the Los Angeles Center for Law and Justice (the leading legal service firm for low-income clients in east Los Angeles), and Friends of Israel's Environment. Professor Zasloff's other major activity consists in explaining the Triangle Offense to his very patient wife, Kathy.