Whatever else he might have accomplished in this week’s dramatic raid on a Jericho prison, Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert certainly put his personal stamp on Israel’s political agenda. If any Israelis were still wondering about Olmert’s leadership skills and his mastery of things military, they’ll now have the images from Jericho to carry with them when they enter the polling booth in less than two weeks.
The raid brought Israeli tanks and bulldozers smashing through the walls of a Palestinian prison compound where six Palestinian terrorists had been held under international supervision. Under a 2002 agreement, the United States and Great Britain had been monitoring the detention of the six, including the killers of tourism minister Rehavam Ze’evi, after Yasser Arafat refused to hand them over to Israel. Israel moved in this week after the monitors, claiming security had deteriorated, withdrew. The six surrendered following a nine-hour standoff.
Cynics immediately began whispering that the raid was a political ploy to boost Olmert’s falling poll numbers. Anxiety over the rise of Hamas and the fading luster of Olmert’s stricken mentor, Ariel Sharon, had driven his Kadima party’s standing from a projected
44 Knesset seats to 37 in the past month.
The preceding week had seen Olmert taking aggressive new steps to recoup, including weekend press interviews in which he announced plans for new West Bank withdrawals to new, permanent Israeli borders, coupled with annexation of major settlement blocs. Aides privately called the plan a risky move that could either recharge Olmert’s campaign or slow it further.
Given Olmert’s delicate political condition, the timing of the Jericho raid initially struck some critics as suspicious. Knesset member Zahava Galon of the left-wing Meretz party said it “reeked” of “campaign thinking.” Veteran leftist gadfly Uri Avnery called it “an almost- uncamouflaged campaign ploy.”
In the territories, Palestinians responded with rage. Militants charged that Great Britain had withdrawn its troops in collusion with Israel. Even Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, considered a relative moderate, charged the United States and Great Britain with “responsibility” for the raid because they had withdrawn their monitors. Gaza was wracked by rioting, attacks on British offices and kidnappings of journalists and aid officials, bringing British-Palestinian relations to their lowest point in years. European Union officials said aid to the Palestinians might be slashed if violence against European institutions continued.
In London, British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw made clear that the British withdrawal had been planned days earlier. Straw told Parliament that Great Britain had notified Israel and the P.A. of its plans to withdraw its monitors a week earlier, on March 8, because the authority “consistently failed to meet its obligations” to guarantee security. He called the violent reactions in the Palestinian territories “appalling.”
The prisoners seized in the raid included some of the most notorious figures of the second intifada, including Ahmed Saadat, head of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and mastermind of the Ze’evi assassination. Also seized was Fuad Shubeiki, the alleged mastermind of the so-called Karine A illegal weapons shipment to the P.A. in 2002.
But while the facts seemed to show clearly that the Jericho raid was driven by straightforward security considerations — led by concern that the prisoners would walk free — it seemed certain to boost Olmert’s image as a tough leader in the Sharon mold. Both of Olmert’s main political rivals, Amir Peretz of the Labor Party and Benjamin Netanyahu of Likud, praised the raid, in statements that seemed to accentuate Olmert’s advantage.
Netanyahu, who has been struggling for months to lift his party out of third place in the polls, called the raid “the right step that demonstrates that no prize or concessions should be given to terror.” Just before the raid, sources in his campaign had been talking of giving their hard-line party a “more positive” approach to Israeli-Palestinian relations, though no specifics were made public. The newly hawkish mood seemed to catch Netanyahu and his party off-guard, searching yet again to find their footing on ever-shifting ground.
Netanyahu’s weakness was further highlighted when leaked press reports indicated that he had failed to convince two putative coalition partners, Avigdor Lieberman of the Russian immigrant party Yisrael Beteinu and Eli Yishai of the Sephardic Orthodox Shas, to support him for prime minister after the elections.
By law, Israel’s figurehead president meets with every party leader after an election and then picks the candidate with the best chance to form a coalition — not necessarily the head of the largest party. Netanyahu had been hoping to form a bloc that would guarantee him the president’s nod even if he didn’t win the most Knesset seats. But his would-be allies reportedly refused to sign on.
Meanwhile, polls continued to indicate that the anti-Netanyahu camp — Kadima, Labor, Meretz and the Arab parties — will win more than 60 seats in Knesset, nullifying his chances of getting the president’s nod. The latest poll, conducted just before the Jericho raid, showed Kadima sharply up to 42 Knesset seats, five more than the week before, apparently reflecting public approval of his withdrawal plan. The poll showed Labor at 16 seats, down from 20, and Likud holding at 15.
Peretz, the Labor leader, was running an even more unusual campaign this week. Sources close to him said his new message is that voters who were still undecided between Kadima and Labor should vote for Labor, to make it a strong ally in Olmert’s future government.
Peretz’s response to the Jericho raid reflected that strategy. “Labor, under my leadership, serves as a full partner in the fight against terror and protection of Israeli citizens,” he said. “This operation had an important message — murderers and terrorists cannot roam free. They must pay the full price for their murderous actions.”
Peretz knows that his likely supporters favor a Kadima-Labor coalition, and that most of them prefer Olmert as prime minister. The message from his camp was that Labor would be a more effective junior partner to Olmert’s Kadima if it entered the coalition with 25 Knesset seats.
The polls should be taken with a larger grain of salt than usual. Twenty percent of those polled say they are still undecided, and the real number could be even larger. No candidate enjoys Sharon’s immense popularity. Moreover, no party can count on the almost tribal loyalty that Labor and Likud once commanded.
Most analysts predict that voter turnout will be lower than usual, and that many voters will remain undecided until the last minute. For all the campaigning and speculations, Israelis approach March 28 with apprehension rather than expectation, indifference rather than hope.