Israel: Can Olmert Survive Bad War Report?

Israelis began calling for the head of their prime minister, Ehud Olmert, this week, after an interim report of the Winograd Commission, the panel investigating the conduct of last summer's Lebanon war, found "severe failures" in Olmert's handling of the conflict. Labor Party politicians demanded that Olmert resign, and protesters began marching toward Tel Aviv to attend what is expected to be a massive rally on Thursday night in the city's Rabin Square. Even some of the prime minister's Kadima Party colleagues had jumped on the bandwagon by midweek; one Kadima member, Marina Solodkin, told Army Radio that the report was "so severe, that according to what is written there, [Olmert] must resign." As the pressure intensified, NEWSWEEK's Kevin Peraino spoke with Yaron Ezrahi, a political scientist at Jerusalem's Hebrew University, about the report. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: Were you surprised by the forceful wording of the Winograd report?
Yaron Ezrahi:
I though the Winograd Commission didn't have many options. The Israeli public already made up its mind; the Winograd Commission would have been wiped out by public opinion [if it were milder]. The public didn't have to be very sophisticated or have access to classified intelligence to see the growing gap between the inflated goals described by Olmert and the achievements on the ground. The Winograd Commission could only reflect what appeared to be a self-evident judgment.

Is there any way Olmert can survive this crisis?
The question of whether Olmert—who is a walking political corpse—can survive is insignificant. His fall is imminent. Israeli leaders rise and fall on decisions relating to war and peace. The record shows that the public reacts very decisively, but it is a delayed reaction. It happened after Golda Meir was forced to resign [after the 1973 Yom Kippur War]. The reason I'm so confident that Olmert is on his way to expire as a political leader is that he failed the ultimate test.

Still, public opinion alone might not be enough to force a resignation.
The public is depressed. But the question is how quickly they will shift from depression to rage. [Olmert] will do everything in his power to stick to the prime ministership with his nails. What will determine it is the calculations of the people around him: Which is likely to secure their political future? I don't know if it will happen in two days, or two months. But we're definitely in a process of realignment.

Any chance he can hold on until the final Winograd report is released in August?
There are two major scenarios, and they might be combined. I think the country will be ready for a new coalition [in parliament] without Olmert, or the country will go to new elections. If he's forced to resign right now, an attempt will be made to create a coalition of more or less the present participants. In this coalition there will be a reshuffling of positions in the cabinet. [Defense Minister Amir] Peretz is unlikely to survive. So I think the most likely scenario is that some form of the present government will stay—with or without Olmert—for the next few months. I don't think the Israeli public is ready to go to elections right now. The final report will inflict the death blow on Olmert, without a doubt.

Why don't you think new elections are likely now?
It could take time, because large numbers of Knesset members are not likely to be re-elected if there were a shuffling. It would end their political careers.

But couldn't there be a snowball effect, if Knesset members are as confident as you are that Olmert is finished?
Olmert is now like the captain of the Titanic. Those who are on deck—the ministers—will jump into the water and try to swim to the lifeboats. Only the mice will stick to the sinking boat. Those are the ones with no chance of re-election.

Who do you think is most likely to succeed Olmert? Polls show [former prime minister Benjamin] Netanyahu far ahead of rivals if an election were held today.
There's a reluctance of the Israeli people to return to Netanyahu. I think the most likely successor is [former commando Ehud] Barak, because of a strong anxiety about security. What happened after this war is very similar to what happened after the [1973] Yom Kippur War. Israelis want to have a reliable army, and they don't want to sacrifice their young in frivolous wars. If you think declining deterrence is what's most on our mind, then it's Barak, or [former Shin Bet director] Ami Ayalon. [Foreign Minister] Tzipi Livni—in an age of Hillary [Clinton], Ségolène [Royal] and [Angela] Merkel—also stands a chance. It's a very fluid situation.

How does the chaos in Israel's internal politics fit in to the regional picture? Will all this embolden Israel's enemies?
Hizbullah can claim a decisive victory. Israelis feel there was a decline of deterrence. But most Israelis believe it can be corrected. It's inexcusable to many people that the decision-making of the prime minister and defense minister led to such a loss of deterrence. But I think there's also a process of leveling. If Israel is not seen as threatening, maybe it can be better integrated into the Middle East—[convincing Mideast neighbors] that Israel is not this mythical creature they thought was invincible. Israel has an opportunity to work on both sides.