Ehud Olmert: Wise Man or Bush Clone?

Olmert is acting like a Bush clone, vowing to stay the course and ignoring the mounting evidence that if he stays on it he will drive the car right over the cliff. The last thing we need is an Israeli Thelma to go with our American Louise.
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Israel needs to take a deep breath, take a close look at the battlefield (focusing not just on the body count but on the hearts and minds being lost), and learn from the disastrous example of Iraq what blindly and stubbornly staying a self-defeating course will bring.

Israel's current strategy of trying to bomb its way to security is actually having the counterproductive effect of making its people less safe.

Hezbollah's support in the Arab world is growing daily. Jordan's King Abdullah said Israel's all-out offensive has turned the terrorist group into heroes, and Iraq's Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani vowed that if Israel continues its current tactics " will befall the region."

Meanwhile, the conflict has dramatically weakened the democratic government of Lebanon and greatly emboldened the radicals in Iran, whose president today said the "main solution" to the Middle East crisis was the "elimination" of Israel.

Nevertheless, Israel, led by newly bellicose Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, seems determined to press the attack. "There is no cease-fire and there will be no cease-fire," he said in the wake of the Qada bombing, vowing that Israel would fight on "in the air, sea, and land."

Earlier this year, I wrote a post praising Olmert's brand of leadership -- in particular his ability to change course when staying the course has proven to be the wrong path. In Olmert's case, he had gone from opposing the Camp David Peace Accords to being an architect of the plan to unilaterally withdraw Israeli settlers from the Gaza Strip and part of the West Bank.

"Olmert is the ideal person for this moment in history," Jonathan Jacoby, the executive director of the Israel Policy Forum, had told me at the time. "If something doesn't work, it doesn't matter how much it fits into his ideological belief system -- if it doesn't work, it's not good for Israel. He's come around to the position that what Israelis need to think about right now is one thing: what's going to end this conflict?"

Although Jacoby was talking about the intifada, the question can just as easily be applied to Hezbollah.

But the Olmert we've seen over the last 22 days has chosen to adopt the hard-line stance of his senior military officers in what some have suggested is an effort to prove his warrior bona fides (Olmert is one of the few leaders of Israel without a battlefield background).

"Citizens of Lebanon," said Olmert upon the resumption of Israeli airstrikes, "we regret the pain caused to so many of you, the fact that you had to flee your homes and places of residence and the unintentional harm to innocents, but we do not apologize for it."

When I first met Olmert, he was singing a very different tune. Indeed, I was impressed by his willingness to stand up to the hard-liners in his country who were resisting his plans for withdrawal from Gaza and push for a difficult solution that he believed was the only way for Israel to achieve a lasting peace.

Here's what he said at a dinner I MCed in New York in June 2005: "We are tired of fighting. We are tired of being courageous. We are tired of winning. We are tired of defeating our enemies. We want that we will be able to live in an entirely different environment of relations with our enemies. We want them to be our friends, our partners, our good neighbors. And I believe that is not impossible."

Olmert, the man who was "tired of fighting... tired of defeating our enemies," now sees the battle with Hezbollah as "a unique opportunity to change the rules in Lebanon." Shades of George Bush invading Iraq to change the rules in the Middle East.

So now that he's talking like Bush, is Olmert also starting to think like him?

Let's hope not. With the fighting in the Middle East threatening to spill over into Syria and Iran (much to the delight of the neocons inside the White House), this is the time for Olmert to do a gut check and a conscience check... and realize that while he may be winning individual battles, he's losing the war to make Israel safer. This is the time for him to course-correct -- avoiding the Bush model of fanatically staying the course while driving the car over the cliff. The last thing we need is an Israeli Thelma to go with our American Louise.

When championing the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza, Olmert recognized that it was going to be both really painful and really necessary in order to create a lasting peace.

And just because it didn't immediately result in greater security for Israel doesn't mean it was the wrong approach. As Nicholas Kristof pointed out in his column on the lessons Israel could learn from Spain's battles with Basque separatists and Britain's struggles with the IRA, "restraint and conciliation can seem maddeningly ineffective -- but they are still the last, best hope for peace."

Olmert needs to keep that in mind as he seeks to defeat Hezbollah using purely military means -- creating a new generation of terrorists along the way.

George Bush refused to heed the lessons of Vietnam before marching America headlong into the quagmire in Iraq; will Ehud Olmert now refuse to heed the much fresher lessons of Iraq as Israel continues to escalate the conflict in Lebanon?

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