The Magazine

Ehud Olmert's Israel

It's doing better than you've heard.

Feb 4, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 20 • By PETER BERKOWITZ
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Herzliya Pituach, Israel

According to recent opinion polls, roughly 70 percent of Israelis--and about 70 percent of Palestinians--believe that two states living side by side in peace is the just solution to the conflict between them. Yet no solution is at hand. Indeed, a major address delivered by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert last week--and, even more, the political circumstances and climate of opinion in which he delivered it--dramatized not only the remoteness of any resolution but also Israel's ability to prosper even as the Palestinians remain unable to establish a state of their own.

To be sure, Israelis face a formidable array of national security threats. Weapons continue to flow from Egypt into the Gaza Strip (and thanks to Hamas's demolition of the wall that forms the border on the Sinai side, tens of thousands of Palestinians last week flowed from the Gaza Strip into Egypt). Hamas continues to rain down Qassam rockets on the civilian residents of the Israeli town of Sderot, five miles northeast of Gaza, and on surrounding kibbutzim. In the West Bank, Israeli security forces operate around the clock to foil terrorist operations before they cross over into Israel. In the south of Lebanon, Hezbollah has rearmed.

Slightly farther afield, satellite photographs show that Syria has begun to reconstruct what all the world believes to have been a nuclear facility destroyed by Israeli aircraft on September 6. And then there is Iran. Israelis are unimpressed by last month's U.S. National Intelligence Estimate assertion that Tehran suspended its nuclear weapons program in 2003.More in keeping with the same document's assertion that Tehran proceeds apace in its efforts to produce enriched uranium--the crucial ingredient in nuclear weapons--Israelis believe that Iran is determined to become a nuclear power and, should it succeed, would present a grave danger to Israel, the region, and the international order.

As if those threats were not enough, Prime Minister Olmert acts and speaks from a position of weakness. His approval rating makes President Bush's look sterling. He suffers from prostate cancer. He has been subject to a prolonged investigation for graft. He labors under the widespread perception, bolstered by the Winograd Commission's preliminary report last April on the government's conduct of the second Lebanon war, that -Israel's failure to achieve its stated objective--to inflict a crushing blow on Hezbollah--was significantly due to his poor leadership. And on January 30, the Winograd Commission will release the second and final component of its report, which knowledgeable Israelis expect to include a damaging assessment of Olmert's wartime decision-making.

So ask Israelis about the state of the nation, and they will tell you that things are grim and growing worse. But, observes political strategist Eyal Arad, chairman of the Euro Israel Group and former adviser to Prime Ministers Sharon and Olmert, ask Israelis about their personal prospects and many will tell you they have never had it better.

In fact, since recovering in 2003 from the Second Intifada, the Israeli economy is booming, particularly in high-tech industries. The stores are stocked with the latest European fashions and electronic gadgets from around the world. Newer, taller, more glistening buildings distinguish the Tel Aviv skyline. In addition, the health care system boasts excellent facilities, superb physicians, and universal coverage. Literature, music, theater, and filmmaking flourish. Radio and TV feature lively, loud, and nonstop discussion of issues great and small.

But it was Israelis' despondency about their nation's prospects, including apprehensions about their prime minister's integrity and judgment, that Olmert sought to dispel in his January 23 address, the culminating event at the eighth annual Herzliya Conference on Israel's national security.

While acknowledging mistakes, failures, and disappointments, Olmert insisted that the nation is sound, beginning with the 18 months of peace that northern Israel has enjoyed since the end of the second Lebanon war--the longest such period in the 25 years since the launch of the first Lebanon war in 1982.

He confirmed that, thanks to Syria and Iran, Hezbollah has rearmed; it possesses not only more rockets and missiles but newer and more dangerous weapons today than on the eve of the 2006 war. Yet, insisted Olmert,

The unarguable fact is that the Hezbollah is not deployed along Israel's border in the North; its fighters do not come into contact with our soldiers, and not one Hezbollah missile or rocket has been fired towards Israel for a year and a half. For the first time, the Lebanese Army is deployed on the border with Israel. For the first time, there is an effective international force serving as a buffer between ourselves and the Hezbollah.