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14 May 2007

The malaise of Israeli democracy

Rape charges against Israel’s Head of State, and bribery allegations against Ehud Olmert - is Israel

By Sam Hardy

The Wynograd report highlights the malaise surrounding Israeli democracy and the lack of new political leaders.

Two weeks ago Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert looked finished, his Cabinet was wavering and his Foreign Minister stumbled on stage to give an impromptu press conference calling for him to resign.

Yet after surviving the initial barrage of criticism from the Winograd Commission probe into the 2006 Lebanon war and the subsequent vote of no confidence in the Knesset, Olmert remains in power.

The real fallout from the Winograd Report is the way it exposed the malaise and stagnation of a political elite increasingly detached from the Israeli public and still reeling from an utterly unsuccessful campaign against Iranian-backed Hizbollah last summer.

The harsh introspection offered by the Winograd Commission has again underlined Israel’s position as the only functioning democracy in the Middle East. What other regime in the region would lay itself open to such scrutiny? A rhetorical question uttered many times over the last few weeks. Even Hassan Nasrallah had to doff his cap to Israel: ‘it is worthy of respect that the political forces and Israeli public act quickly to save their state…’

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‘Acting quickly to save their state’, this is what every Israeli thought last summer’s war was about. Yet Israel won precious little militarily and nothing politically. And still the two Israeli soldiers remain missing after their seizure last summer sparked the most calamitous war in Israel’s short history.

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Israel’s media, ‘a diseased bunch’ as one foreign correspondent commented to me this week, are clambering for Olmert’s head yet their reporting belies a deeper problem: the sheer lack of strong, dynamic, young political leaders in the country.

Tzipi Livni, the current Foreign Minister and Deputy PM, was perhaps the one exception but her disastrous statement of no confidence against her party’s leader and Israel’s Prime Minister may have dealt her a fatal blow. The Israeli Left and the Labour Party, Kadima’s main coalition party are disunited and woefully lacking new powerful or dynamic leaders.

So today, almost a year after that disastrous, pointless war and the death of more than a 150 Israelis and in excess of more than a thousand Lebanese, Israel is in political limbo. The war last year ripped open the weaknesses within the Israeli system of governance.

The Foreign Ministry, The Prime Minister’s Office and the IDF were at times completely disunited. During periods of the month long war, civilian control of the IDF was seemingly lost. And the story since the war has been much the same with the Kadima led government lurching from one crisis to another.

Rape charges against Israel’s Head of State, Moshe Katsav and bribery allegations against Ehud Olmert himself all float on top of what is at the moment a weak and malfunctioning political system with a semi-politicised civil service and a truly opaque division of control and leadership between government and the military.

The stagnant nature of politics in Israel is mirrored within the regimes of its regional rivals. Syrian politics and civil society is all but dead. The once thriving internal debate within the Baath party has been virtually extinguished and party membership is down year on year.

The fiasco over the return of the UK military personnel in Iran also highlighted the myriad factions and incessant infighting within the Iranian regime. However, it is Israel that was this week strong enough to admit is failings. Giora Eilad, former head of Israel’s National Security Council, said the committee’s report was ‘the most serious study ever of one of the vital issues’, namely, ‘how the State of Israel is run.

The coming months, leading up to the publication of the full Winograd Report, will be telling. Olmert has cleared the highest hurdle and has managed to retain the support of his own party and fellow ministers, with the notable exception of Livni. Equally, should he go or, more likely, the Labour party withdraw from the coalition government, there is no appetite for a new general election. Last year’s election saw the lowest turnout in Israeli history, and interest let alone confidence in Israel’s politicians is negligible.

For all his failings and mistakes, Olmert must be given a chance to redeem himself and his government. It was after all he who commissioned this very report. The alternative is a new government and a sharp tack to the right with the likely election on Binyamin Netanyahu’s Likud party. For the Israeli media Olmert’s resignation would create great copy but for the people of Israel a period of consolidation is needed.