In parliamentary systems, a vote of no confidence forces the prime minister from office. The commission that pilloried Ehud Olmert and his cabinet for the failures of the 2006 war in Lebanon was a de facto vote of confidence, even though the Knesset has yet to deliver a decisive de jure vote. (The no confidence votes have already started. Now, it's just a question of which vote will topple the government.) The commission has created the clear political excuse for members of the governing coalition to defect on some convenient issue.
Not just a man, but a party
Does Olmert's refusal to resign make good political sense? So far, the focus has been on what will happen to Olmert. However, his defiance has as much to do with his party's political fortunes as his own. There are serious doubts about the future of the Kadima Party, were Olmert to rout from the prime ministership.
Kadima, as you might remember, is the creation of Ariel Sharon, who invited political opponents like Shimon Peres to join the new centrist party. New political parties often cannot survive without their founders--for example, see what happened to the Reform Party after Ross Perot lost interest in it. Without Sharon, Kadima might have collapsed from infighting, but didn't; without Olmert as prime minister, Kadima might die from irrelevance.
While Kadima held together under Olmert, it didn’t exactly prosper. For example, the best that Israelis could hope for, with regards to the Palestinians, was a continued “wait and see” policy. The kidnapping of two Israeli soldiers, an incident involving both Palestinian and Lebanese militants, led to Olmert’s decision to go to war with Hezbollah.
Wars rarely start for purely foreign policy reasons, and in the Second Lebanon War, domestic politics played a very large part. Olmert personally had no military credentials, so his ability to handle a security crisis was in question. However, it would be a mistake to overlook the Kadima Party as a factor in Olmert’s hasty decision. Had he failed to respond effectively to the kidnapping and Hezbollah shelling of Israeli settlements, not only Olmert, but his fledgling party, might have fallen from the Israeli political stage.
Olmert obviously sees the commission report from the same perspective as the Second Lebanon War, a trial of strength. By refusing to resign, he hopes to delay his political fall long enough to manufacture some new success, such as a major agreement with the Palestinians. Meanwhile, his Party wants to stay in power, even though some may seek to replace to replace Olmert as prime minister.
The IDF’s report card
With the focus on Olmert, it’s easy to overlook the commission’s criticism of the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF). For the second time, the IDF has bungled its strategy, at the theater and operational levels, fighting in Lebanon. Certainly, chasing Hezbollah missiles out of range of Israeli civilians was necessary. Flattening Lebanon in pursuit of an unlikely outcome, the elimination of Hezbollah, was hardly the right approach. Hezbollah did suffer serious casualties and losses of materiel. However, Hezbollah will rise again—in part because southern Lebanon is now off-limits to Israel, given the political backlash from last year’s war.
Perhaps the most important changes in Israel, therefore, will be in the IDF. Rather than put an air force officer in charge of ground operations, the Cabinet and the IDF might be having second thoughts about who’s running the armed forces. Israelis will also have to face the reality that technological advantages in areas like air power don’t necessarily translate into the results they want. Unfortunately, future campaigns are more likely to resemble the First Lebanon War than the largely conventional battles in 1967 and 1973.
The uncomfortably near future
Hezbollah’s leaders might miscalculate, provoking Israel into righteous wrath. Even if Olmert were to reach a deal with Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah over the rocket attacks on northern Israel, a few independent-minded Hezbollah fighters can render such an agreement effectively null and void. In other words, Olmert might wait long enough for Hezbollah to become a problem again.
However, the issue that started the 2006 war still hasn’t been resolved. Israelis are angry that their government hasn’t recovered the two hostages, bungling their rescue at a previously unimaginable scale. That, more than many other grand strategic priorities, is what’s making the clock tick down for Ehud Olmert.