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Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Defense Minister Amir Peretz and Lt. Gen. Dan Halutz. 
News and Opinion

Voiding Israel’s Leadership Void

--Bruce S. Ticker

Ehud Olmert could have been talking about himself: “The president cannot continue to fulfill his position and he must leave the president’s residence.”

Israeli President Moshe Katsav faces the prospect of sex abuse charges, which are certainly serious, but the ceremonial duties of his office are marginal. At least Katsav did not unnecessarily jeopardize Israel’s very existence - as did a prime minister who tosses stones from his glass house.

Many nations with direct or peripheral ties to the Israeli-Arab conflict are currently afflicted by leadership gridlock, which is a positive in countries or lands that threaten Israel. A deep internal rift in Israel is a terrifying condition.

Olmert’s government could well topple in the coming months, but the wait for it will be too long if it is replaced the day after you read this. So far, a full six months after Israel and Hezbollah confronted one another in southern Lebanon, Lt. Gen. Dan Halutz quit as the Israeli military’s chief of staff. Halutz was properly condemned for his catastrophic approach in responding to Hezbollah’s seizure of two Israeli soldiers and its subsequent shelling of northern Israel.

We can safely predict that Defense Minister Amir Peretz’s days are numbered. He is likely to be ousted as leader of the Labor Party in the May 28 leadership elections. Olmert is now subjected to two formal corruption investigations; if indicted, he will be forced by Israeli law to step down, but that could be months away.

Even if this crowd is gone in the coming months, their removal will be too little, too late. Israel does not have the luxury to wait for elections or other circumstances to transform the leadership. Israel needs solid leadership now. Israel should have gotten new leadership months ago. I recognize that such a notion flies in the face of a democratic system, and I am certainly not trying to give anyone inappropriate ideas, but that’s how it is.

This is not to say, necessarily, that Olmert, Peretz and Halutz are bad people, and past administrations contributed to some of the major failings of last summer’s war. Yet Olmert and Peretz are in way over their heads. They flunked Leadership 101. They foundered when confronted with a crisis. During the two-front war, they could not achieve realistic goals, minimize casualties on all sides or manage perceptions with the world community. That’s plenty reason for them to step down without delving into other serious flaws.

Almost immediately after the 34-day war, a group of reservists composed a letter which Israeli newspapers published that accused military commanders and political leaders of hesitancy and confusion that prevented the military from prevailing, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency reported last August. They contend that operative plans were constantly changed and the military objectives were vague.

“There is one thing for which we were not and will never be ready: indecisiveness,” the reservists said. “To be ready for the next war, which appears imminent, a radical and fundamental change is needed.”

We already know of Israel’s current challenges: Especially, a madman in Iran who evidently is plotting Israel’s destruction; Hezbollah probably retrenching in southern Lebanon; terrorists in Gaza launching rockets into Sderot and other Israeli towns; three soldiers held in captivity; an ally (the U.S.) governed by a crew that seems clueless; and those in some quarters pressing Israel to negotiate a settlement amid these threats.

Not much pressure, is it?

Israel needs a leader who will focus on a long term course of action while being capable of containing a crisis. They must be consistent, honest and know what they are doing. They cannot allow the circumstances of the moment to dictate their actions.

Polls and news reports convincingly make plain that most Israelis want Olmert and Peretz out. Peretz is likely to lose the election to former Prime Minister Ehud Barak, ex-Shin Bet head Ami Ayalon or Ophir Paz-Pines. Also waiting in the wings are Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni of the Kadima Party and Likud’s Benjamin Netanyahu, also a former prime minister.

In a recent article, JTA listed the approaches that could lead to Olmert’s departure: a Knesset vote for early elections, which does not seem likely; a split in Kadima that would result in the return of half its members to Likud; or Kadima’s rejection of Olmert as its leader.

Ultimately, it is up to the Israeli electorate to move the country forward. And it is clear that will only happen once this leadership void is voided.

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