HERZLIYA, Israel — Fighting for his political life, prime minister Ehud Olmert told the Israeli people that keeping him in office was their best hope of reaching the promised land of peace.
“There is no other option to what I am offering,” Olmert said last week in his keynote address at the Herzliya Conference, referring to ambitious peace efforts with the Palestinians launched under the aegis of the United States at the Annapolis, Md., peace conference last November.
It was an embattled Olmert who showed up just one week before the publication of the final report of the Winograd Commission investigating his and other top officials’ actions in the 2006 Lebanon war.
Calls for Omert’s resignation have been growing from political rivals, bereaved families and even Israel Defence Forces reserve officers.
After the speech, Maj.-Gen. Eyal Ben-Reuven said Olmert’s words of hope cannot conceal his failures in the 2006 war with Hezbollah.”The prime minister earned a failing grade in the supreme test of any state,” Ben-Reuven said to Army Radio of Olmert’s management of the war.
The prime minister’s address at the annual Herzliya Conference has become a platform for Israeli leaders to present major policy initiatives.
Olmert used the speech not for any dramatic surprises but to state his case that despite past errors, the country is on the right track.
“I come to speak of the future,” Olmert said in his opening remarks, quickly sidestepping calls for his dismissal. “I believe responsible leadership can deal with criticism… and continue forward.”
He said the negotiations with the Palestinian Authority were full of risks and questions but repeated the message that they are the only way Israel can break the cycle of conflict the country has been locked in since the state was born.
“We have no right to squander this chance,” Olmert said. “Our nation has been waiting for a light at the end of the tunnel.
“We have no horizon of hope more promising than speaking with the current Palestinian leadership. Some say it is weak,” he said, and “unable to hold up to agreements. I say this is the best [Palestinian] leadership we could have.”
Olmert warned that if action is not taken now, there might not be a democratic state with a Jewish majority to call home in the future.
Although the Gaza Strip and the southern Israeli town of Sderot are the current front lines of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Olmert referred only briefly to the situation there. Israel has faced international criticism for limiting Gaza’s fuel supplies.
“We will not permit, under any circumstances or conditions, a humanitarian crisis to develop,” Olmert said. “We will not harm the supply of food for children, medicine for those who need it and fuel for institutions that save lives.
“But there is no justification for demanding we allow residents of Gaza to live normal lives while shells and rockets are fired from their streets and courtyards at Sderot and other communities in the south.”
Olmert touted the quiet that has prevailed in the north of the country since the end of the 2006 war, saying the past 18 months of rocket-free life on the border was the longest stretch of calm there in the past 25 years.
“Our enemies in the north are in no rush to fight us, and they know why,” he said, offering that the reasons Hezbollah refrains from reigniting violence with Israel “are known to all who need to know.
“These reasons reflect the enormous might of Israel,” Olmert added.
A former corporate lawyer, Olmert defended himself while acknowledging mistakes were made.
“I have no regrets about the vital decisions that I led as prime minister, not those linked with the fighting in Lebanon, nor those related to other matters,” he said.
“Mistakes were made, yes. There were failures – definitely. But lessons were learned, flaws were fixed, modes of operating were changed and principally, the decisions that I have made since then have brought greater security, more quiet, less terror, greater deterrence and more prosperity for the State of Israel than it has had in many years.”
Ben Caspit, a senior political columnist for Israel’s daily Ma’ariv, said Olmert’s speech was good, comprehensive, “even moving.” But he argued that no matter what Olmert says or how he says it, his fate remains on the line.
“Whatever he says now, one week before the Winograd Committee determines his fate, is subject to a warning comment. All his high-flown peace talk requires proof,” he wrote in last Thursday’s paper. “Yesterday, he gave his speech for the defence, from the depths of his heart, firing the opening shot of the race of his life, even before the race has started.”