As a matter of principle, it is not the business of American friends of Israel to tell Israelis who should, or should not, be their prime minister.
That is, unfortunately, a proposition that has been observed largely in the breach over the course of the last 30 years.
American Jews, and American politicians for that matter, have done their best – or worst – over the past three decades to try and tilt the outcome of Israeli politics and elections to suit their preferences.
A left-leaning Diaspora Jewry often undermined right-wing Israeli prime ministers such as Menachem Begin, Yitzhak Shamir and Benjamin Netanyahu. The right-wing minority tried, albeit with far less success, to give Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres, Ehud Barak, and then Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert the same treatment.
American presidents have also done their best to help elect Israeli leaders they thought more sympathetic to their vision of the alliance and the peace process, and to block those of whom they disapproved.
This pattern appeared to have come to an end in recent years with two unlikely partners: George W. Bush and Ariel Sharon. Together, this unlikely pair forged the closest alliance between any Israeli and American governments.
Bush gave Sharon the “green light” to do whatever he thought needed to be done to squelch Palestinian terrorists. Sharon backed Bush’s endorsement of a theoretically democratic Palestinian state and unilaterally pulled out of the Gaza Strip. While the Gaza withdrawal did not prompt Palestinians to give up their obsession with Israel’s destruction, it was wildly popular in Washington.
After Sharon fell victim to a stroke in January 2006, the Bush administration’s love was transferred to his successor, Ehud Olmert. As he sought power in his own right under the banner of the new “centrist” Kadima Party that Sharon had created, Olmert received the same sort of pre-election demonstrations of friendship that had been given to Sharon.
When Olmert hastily decided to go to war against Hizbullah after cross-border terror attacks, Bush gave him the sort of wartime backing that previous Israeli governments could only have dreamed of. Far from seeking to limit Israel’s victory, Bush gave Olmert the same green light he gave Sharon. American diplomats stalled any talk of a cease-fire as the administration sat back and waited for the Israelis to roll up Hizbullah.
The only problem was that Israel didn’t win.
Due to indecisive and foolish decision-making by an inexperienced Olmert, his hopelessly overmatched defense minister and the airpower-besotted Israel Defense Force chief of staff, the result was a bloody stalemate that left Hizbullah in place.
This result was not only disheartening to Israelis; it appears to have shaken Bush’s confidence in Olmert’s competence as well. What’s followed since then is an American foreign policy that has started to drift back to the old pattern of searching for ways to artificially revive a moribund peace process via even more Israeli concessions.
Now that the Winograd Commission has come in with a damning verdict, the question of whether or not Olmert stays in power becomes one in which overseas onlookers have a stake.
Given the math of the current Knesset – the majority of which belong to parties that are part of Olmert’s coalition, and thus unlikely to be as successful if new elections were held – Olmert must have liked his chances of survival. But if his coalition of opportunists think their only path to survival demands that Olmert be thrown under the bus, it may be that his end is nigh.
The Bush administration and Diaspora left-wingers will probably be rooting for Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni as the most accommodating of the possible successors since Labor is in no position to head this coalition or win a new election.
Right-wingers will be hoping that Likud’s Netanyahu, currently the most popular politician in Israel (which just goes to show how far the worm has turned in the eight years since Bibi’s disastrous premiership came to an end) can somehow force early elections.
But true friends of Israel will not be concentrating on the fates of individual politicians so much as on the nature of any government that might follow Olmert. That’s because no matter where you stand on the issues, the thing to fear is a weak Israeli government, no matter who might be leading it.