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Ehud Olmert: Latter-Day LBJ

The last person you'd want to bet on these days is Ehud Olmert. With the fighting on the Lebanese front winding down and the fighting on the home front heating up, the Israeli prime minister who only five months ago secured victory at the ballot has suddenly found his once-promising career dangling over the abyss. Ever since U.N. Resolution 1701 ended hostilities, it seems that not a day goes by without someone else in Israel calling for Olmert's head. Just last week, a group of army reservists infuriated over the war's handling marched to Jerusalem demanding the government's resignation. A recent poll in Maariv (my employer) echoed this public outrage: Olmert's approval rating has plummeted to 40 percent after hovering at a stratospheric 78 during the first week of war.

While it's far too early to count out Olmert just yet, there appears to be at least one casualty that has already been sustained: realignment. As the Israeli press has been reporting in past weeks, Olmert's revolutionary plan for unilateral withdrawal from the West Bank--modeled after the one from Gaza last year--has slinked sheepishly off the agenda, leaving many to wonder if it took the raison d'être of Kadima (Olmert's party) with it.All of which, come to think of it, has a familiar ring to it: An ambitious leader's promising career and noble vision are both cut short by an unwanted and unwinnable war. This has all the makings of a classic tragic narrative, only much closer to home. Is Ehud Olmert Lyndon Johnson all over again?

They led different countries in very different times, but Olmert and Johnson share some unusual circumstances that ultimately hindered their dreams of making history. Olmert, like Johnson, was a professional politician catapulted into office by tragedy. Entering office as a result of their predecessors' unexpected demise, both leaders were tainted mildly by an aura of illegitimacy overshadowing every move they made. Olmert may have attained a convincing electoral victory last March, but, like LBJ in 1964, it's unclear whether he won a vote of confidence or of sympathy.

Most striking is the monumental ideological shift--which both leaders underwent during their careers--that eventually shaped their innovative policies. Olmert, for his part, managed to overcome inherent predispositions acquired growing up in a traditional, right-wing household, and he transformed into something of a dove. It was not unlike the transition made by a provincial Texas high school teacher who came to be a champion of civil rights.At the core of Johnson's vision for America was his "unconditional war on poverty" and the creation of that utopian Great Society, intended to steer the United States "toward a destiny where the meaning of our lives matches the marvelous products of our labor." Olmert's vision is, and maybe was, just as bold. Considering withdrawal the only mechanism that could ensure that Israel remained both a democratic and a Jewish state, he came to view it as an existential necessity. "I was elected prime minister of Israel on that sole agenda that I'm prepared to negotiate with the Palestinians ... that I will help Israel ultimately have borders ... and I will separate us from the Palestinians," he told CNN's Wolf Blitzer in May. "There is nothing that I want more."

Then came the war, which, as the cliché goes, changed everything. Not surprisingly, many Israelis think of Lebanon--especially the tiresome and bloody guerrilla war they fought there from 1982 to 2000--as their Vietnam. In hindsight, it proved strategically unnecessary, unwinnable, and, still, almost impossible to give up. Sound familiar?

More importantly, wars that neither leader sought abruptly ended their grandest aspirations. Johnson, constrained by fidelity to John F. Kennedy's liberal anticommunism, felt compelled to fight in Vietnam. Olmert, too, was reaping seeds sowed by his predecessor, Ariel Sharon, who allowed Hezbollah to rearm between the 2000 Lebanon withdrawal and his stroke this past January. Both men's legacies will be tainted by their wars, even though neither battle was entirely of their making.That's because, in the end, both wars rendered moot their visions for Israel and the United States. Today, Olmert's plan for realignment--aimed ultimately at concentrating the majority of the West Bank's Jewish population into several large border settlements--is all but dead. The war magnified the inherent dangers associated with unilateral withdrawal in the face of terrorism, and it will force Israel to rethink its policies before allowing the creation of a sovereign Palestinian state that might turn out as bad as--or even worse than--southern Lebanon. Worse, the war has significantly weakened the mandate of Olmert, and it will therefore prevent him--at least for foreseeable future--from garnering the considerable public and political support needed to implement such a controversial policy.Vietnam struck Johnson much the same way. With hostilities escalating throughout his entire term in office, and with the costs in lives as well as materiel painfully increasing, Johnson came to that elementary dilemma that no wartime leader ever wants to face: guns or butter. He chose the former, and he eventually lost not only the means to create the Great Society he envisioned, but also the public trust to do so. All of which convinced him, by March 1968, that not only was his domestic agenda dead, but most probably his career. That month, he announced he would not seek reelection.

Without their wars, there's no telling what might have been. Racial reconciliation in the United States? Fixed borders for Israel? The uplifting of America's poorest? Peace with the Palestinians? We'll never know. In the end, the only real difference between Johnson and Olmert is where they have left off. The opening chapter in Johnson's New York Times obituary was titled "a legacy of progress." It's true that Johnson never finished what he began, but Olmert never really got started.

Yoav Fromer is the political correspondent in New York for the Israeli daily newspaper Maariv.
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