June 2007

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Thousands protest against the Olmert government.
News and Opinion

Israel Needs Major Reforms

-- Stephen M. Asbel

Mass public discontent with Ehud Olmert’s "village of idiots" government was clearly illustrated by the recent rally in Tel Aviv. Attendance was estimated at 150,000 people which is huge in a tiny country like Israel. In the US, a country with 43 times the population, a comparable demonstration would comprise 6,500,000 people. Another remarkable development is that this demonstration brought out traditional political opponents. Contingents from the left-wing Meretz party were in the same crowd as those from the right-wing Likud and National Union-National Religious blocs.

In a country that is often sharply divided over major issues, ironically Olmert has brought the nation together in its disgust with him and his unqualified defense minister, Amir Peretz. The dislike for these two is staggering, with recent polls showing them having approval ratings of 2% and 1% respectively. As speakers at the Tel Aviv rally indicated, this outpouring is a healthy sign of vitality in Israel's democracy. It would have been more alarming if, after the Winograd preliminary damning findings were published, no one came out to protest.

While the major focus of public anger is directed at Olmert and Peretz (who is likely to be forced out as Labor party leader if he does not resign first), the problems in Israel’s political system are far deeper than the bungling and ineptitude of these politicians. Israel's political system is seriously broken. The entire system of how people are chosen to be in the Knesset and are appointed to the cabinet is all about who delivers voting blocs and not about who is capable of doing the job. The President of the State is under indictment. Numerous high officials, including Olmert himself, are under criminal investigation.

The most-discussed element of the Winograd report seems to focus on how and why Olmert decided to go to war when Hezbollah kidnapped Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev. But there are other issues in the report which must not be ignored, such as why the army not better prepared for war. Another issue which the preliminary report does not address is the decision to accept UN Resolution 1701 and its implementation. None of the promises of 1701 have been carried out. Hezbollah has rearmed and it is reestablishing itself in South Lebanon. Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni deserves tough scrutiny along with the rest of the leadership on this point.

High level resignations will not solve all the problems but they would be a start. Meanwhile, Olmert argues that his resignation will only cause the current coalition to fall apart, forcing new elections that could sweep Kadima MKs from the Knesset. Olmert went so far as to obtain statements from Yisrael Beitenu, Shas and the Pensioners that they would leave the coalition of Olmert resigns. Talk about self-serving. When Golda Meir was beset with investigations and recriminations about lack of preparedness for the Yom Kippur War, she sucked it up and resigned as Prime Minister even though she had been cleared by the Agranat Commission and had won a new election after the war. Golda resigned because she realized she no longer had the support of the people. In contrast, Olmert clearly lacks the support of the people AND the Winograd commission openly blames him for the failures of the Second Lebanon War. Olmert is not even a fraction of the leader that Golda was in her day. He should have the sense to realize that and resign now.

There may be an opportunity in the public's outrage to tackle the deeper problems in Israel's governance, but it will require strong new leaders ready to change the "that’s the way we’ve always done it" mentality that has been perpetuated both by the current government and the opposition. With Israel facing rising dangers in every direction, to say the stakes are high is an understatement.

Stephen M. Asbel is an attorney in Media, Pennsylvania and the author of the Saba Yeshayah Israel News and Views weblog.

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