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by Peter Hirschberg

Olmert Under Siege From Angry Israeli Press, Public

(IPS) JERUSALEM -- Two percent. That is the lowest-ever recorded trust rating achieved by an Israeli prime minister. And the new record holder is Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

The poll was published last month by the daily Yediot Ahronoth.

In fact, so disastrous are the Israeli leader's popularity ratings, that he began a recent speech with a full-blown admission of his own unpopularity. "I'm an unpopular prime minister, the polls say so," he confessed. "I think they are right, I am indeed an unpopular prime minister."

Olmert's unexpected heart-to-heart with the nation, of course, was a desperate attempt to shore up his sullied political image and repel calls for his resignation. He made it clear he had no thoughts of quitting and that he planned to serve the public "for a long time yet."

But if the prime minister is to survive politically, he will require a lot more than just rhetorical device. He faces possibly his stiffest test since taking office a year ago, when a commission of inquiry into the government's handling of the war in Lebanon last summer publishes its interim findings in the coming weeks.

The vast majority of Israelis believe that Olmert badly mismanaged the war and that the military's inability to halt Hezbollah rocket fire damaged Israel's deterrent image not only in the eyes of the Arab states, but also in the eyes of its allies, especially the United States.

Already the chief of staff who conducted the military campaign in Lebanon, Dan Halutz, has resigned, and Defense Minister Amir Peretz, who heads the Labor Party, is expected to be ousted when the party holds its leadership primaries in May. If that happens, Peretz would have to leave his ministerial post, leaving Olmert the only one still in office of the three men most closely tied to the military operation in Lebanon.

The prime minister has also been dogged by a series of corruption scandals that have eroded his public image and further sapped his political reserves. In one case, the attorney general has examined allegations that Olmert took bribes during his term as acting finance minister in 2005, as part of the privatization of one of Israel's leading banks.

According to reports, the prime minister allegedly helped two foreign businessmen with whom he has ties and who were bidding for the bank. Ultimately, though, the bank was sold to a concern with which the two men had no connection.

Israel's government watchdog, the State Comptroller's Office, has also investigated two other cases involving Olmert. One involves his purchase of a property in Jerusalem at a price allegedly significantly below market value, and the second relates to political appointments made by Olmert when he served as minister of industry and trade.

The prime minister has strenuously denied any wrongdoing, and no formal charges have been submitted in any of the cases.

The combination of the corruption probes and the Israeli public's sense that the prime minister mismanaged the war in Lebanon could ultimately prove fatal to Olmert. The fact that the war has left him without a diplomatic agenda -- he dumped his plan for a unilateral withdrawal in the West Bank shortly after the fighting ended in August last year -- has cemented his image as a rudderless, policy bereft leader.

Olmert has made positive noises about an Arab plan for Mideast peace, known as the Saudi initiative, and he continues to meet with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, but no substantive progress has been made in these meetings. He and Abbas met again on Sunday, but both leaders appear to be doing little more than going through the motions.

Officials on both sides were vague and non-committal in the aftermath of the meeting. "It was a positive meeting, part of the ongoing dialogue which helps build confidence between the Israeli and Palestinian leadership," said the prime minister's spokeswoman Miri Eisen.

Saeb Erekat, a senior aide to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said the meeting was "only the beginning. I don't think that one meeting can solve all the problems."

The Saudi peace initiative, which was relaunched in Riyadh last month during an Arab League summit, holds out normal ties for Israel with all Arab states in exchange for a full withdrawal from the West Bank and Golan Heights, the creation of an independent Palestinian state and a "just solution" for Palestinian refugees.

The prime minister is now said to be mulling the idea -- having initially opposed it -- of joining U.S.-sponsored talks with an Arab League working group that would try to forge agreement on a broad peace accord. Israel, though, is strongly opposed to the return of Palestinian refugees to its territory and Olmert wants to hold on to sections of the West Bank that would include large settlement blocs, after any future Israeli withdrawal.

The prime minister said earlier this week that he was "willing to hold a dialogue with any grouping of Arab states about their ideas."

Talk, however, will not be enough to extract the Israeli leader from the political doldrums. Even if he survives the Lebanon war inquiry and the corruption allegations go away, he will still have to offer Israelis a diplomatic horizon if he is to begin the seemingly impossible task of clawing his way back into their favor.

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Albion Monitor   April 17, 2007   (

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