Olmert’s Remarks Draw Fire

By Orly Halpern

Published December 15, 2006, issue of December 15, 2006.
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It’s not clear whether they are gaffes or calculated slips, but several comments made publicly by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert have not only raised the ire of many Israeli citizens but have raised fears that he has endangered the lives of kidnapped soldiers — and perhaps Israel’s defense policy.

“He’s a chatterbox,” said Hebrew University political scientist Amir Bar-Or, an expert on political-military relations and national security. “His words sometimes are spoken irresponsibly. … He went too far in talking about the soldiers and now about the nuclear issue.”

Early in December, during a meeting at the Knesset with high-school students from Nahariya, Olmert said that he had halted the Lebanon war with two kidnapped soldiers still in captivity in order to avoid getting more soldiers killed. He added, “I hope they are still alive.”

Six days later, in a December 10 interview with German television, he appeared to confirm that Israel possesses nuclear weapons.

Israelis were horrified at the sight of their leader speaking publicly about leaving soldiers behind, in apparent disregard for their families’ feelings. Many interpreted his comment about the soldiers to mean that he knew that they might be dead. The soldiers’ relatives and their allies were aghast, arguing publicly that it might cause Hezbollah to kill the soldiers if they are alive — and if Hezbollah does not get what it is bargaining for.

Uzi Dayan, a retired major general who heads a public council for the return of the kidnapped soldiers, said he feared a repeat of the case of the long-missing navigator Ron Arad. The late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin once turned down a swap of Arad for a large number of Arab prisoners, “and now Ron Arad is gone,” said Dayan, a former deputy chief of staff and founding director of Israel’s National Security Council. “What if the government says no to something Hezbollah asks? It’s a chess game, but it’s people. So you keep quiet.”

The day after Olmert’s talk to the students, the military censor allowed Yediot Ahronot to publish parts of an internal army report, compiled just after the soldiers’ July 12 kidnapping, which concluded that the soldiers were seriously injured during the assault. One was injured critically and would have needed immediate medical attention to survive, the report said.

Some believe the report’s release was timed either to show that Olmert did not speak foolishly or to lower Hezbollah’s bargaining power.

Explanations for Olmert’s remarks abound. “If Israel believes that the soldiers are probably dead, then it certainly makes sense to call Hezbollah’s bluff and minimize its bargaining power,” said Jerusalem Post political commentator Anshel Pfeffer.

Another theory is that by writing off the two soldiers held in Lebanon, Olmert is separating their release from that of Gilad Shalit, who is being held by Hamas in Gaza. Signs of life, including a letter, have been received from Shalit, and negotiations with Hamas are active and seem to have a chance of success. By contrast, talks with Hezbollah are stalled, and the Lebanese group has tried to link its captives to Shalit while refusing to offer signs of life.

Alternatively, some theorize that Olmert might have been trying to get Hezbollah to prove that the soldiers are indeed alive by hinting that they may not be.

The partially disclosed report brings up another question. The research for it began the day of the kidnapping of the soldiers — the event that triggered the monthlong war — and was completed in two weeks. Yet according to Yediot, the prime minister only received the report after hearing about it from a Yediot journalist — after he had signed Israel’s agreement to the Aug. 14 cease-fire. Yediot questioned whether there was a conspiracy or negligence behind Olmert’s failure to receive the report sooner. The army claims that Olmert got the information about the soldier’s medical situation.

Most experts believe the army. “Here you are dealing with two soldiers that are at the center of the whole issue,” said Yoram Peri, head of the Chaim Herzog Institute for Media, Politics and Society at Tel Aviv University. “It seems very unlikely that the prime minister’s director general didn’t know about it.”

Like most Israeli analysts, Peri believes that even if Olmert did not receive the report, it was likely due to negligence. He said that a conspiracy to continue the war by preventing Olmert from knowing the captives’ medical condition was “very unlikely.”

Even if Olmert had received the information, it would not have made a difference, experts said. “It wouldn’t change anything about the war,” said Bar-Or, a retired colonel, “because the prime minister said from the beginning that one of the goals was to return the soldiers. So it doesn’t matter if they were lightly or severely injured or, God forbid, dead.”

Days after his soldiers slip, Olmert opened his mouth again and caused a minor political earthquake. In an interview on the German-television news channel N24, Olmert said: “We have never threatened any nation with annihilation. Iran openly, explicitly and publicly threatens to wipe Israel off the map. Can you say that this is the same level, when they are aspiring to have nuclear weapons, as America, France, Israel, Russia?”

For some 50 years Israel has maintained a policy of “nuclear ambiguity.” The United States has maintained it for Israel as well. However, recently, incoming Secretary of Defense Robert Gates listed Israel among the nations in Iran’s neighborhood that possess nuclear weapons. It’s not clear whether this was a slip or whether Olmert intended to change policy in order to scare Iran.

Politicians from both sides of the political spectrum were up in arms.

“He should resign,” said Yuval Steinitz, a member of the Knesset from the Likud party.”Someone who cannot control his mouth and cannot think before speaking cannot fill such a highly sensitive position.”

Olmert has made other gaffes. In a meeting with President Bush last month, he said that Israel supported the American war in Iraq, not only putting him at odds with the newly elected Democratic Congress, but confirming suspicions of many that Israel was pushing for the war. In both Gulf Wars, Israeli prime ministers maintained a low profile, saying the wars were not Israel’s business.

After a day of withering criticism from opposition on the left and right, Olmert seemed to backtrack, repeating three times during a press conference in Berlin with German Chancellor Angela Merkel that “Israel won’t be the first country to introduce nuclear weapons into the Middle East.” His statement appeared aimed at blurring his earlier seeming controversial confirmation of Israeli nukes.

Olmert’s spokeswoman, Miri Eisen, who accompanied Olmert to Germany, said the prime minister did not mean to say that Israel possessed or planned to acquire nuclear weapons. Aides insisted he was speaking of Iran’s perception of its opponents’ capabilities, not of the reality.

His statement may have caused irreversible damage. On Tuesday, the central organization of the Gulf states called on the U.S. and the U.N. to place sanctions on Israel, saying there should be no double standards.

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