Jerusalem – Earlier this month, in a defiant speech to his Kadima party, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert defended his record. Again and again Olmert wore his unpopularity as a badge of honor and, rattling off numerous challenges that he was ostensibly addressing, said, “This is my place of work.”
Unfortunately, unpopularity is not always a sign of principle, as Olmert would have us believe. Moreover, Olmert’s case for his achievements is largely beside the point.
If, by some miracle, Olmert managed to convince the public that he handled the war better than they thought, it would not revive his political fortunes. Olmert’s biggest problem is not past failure, but present paralysis.
The refrain “This is my place of work” was meant to paint a picture of a leader who, oblivious to the polls, is quietly working to advance the national interest. No one, however, believes this, and it should be obvious that declaring it so will have little impact.
Olmert must rebuild his credibility before he can draw upon it and say, in effect, “Trust me, I’m taking care of the public’s interest.”
Actions speak louder than spin. What could Olmert do to demonstrate that he is hard at work for the public, and not just his political survival?
‐ Save lives on the roads. For years politicians have talked about “declaring war” against road carnage, which costs some 500 lives each year, cumulatively many more than all wars and terrorism combined. Most of these lives could be saved by emulating the speed-camera programs that have drastically reduced road deaths in the United Kingdom, France, and Australia.
A pilot program for a national speed camera system has been prepared within the Internal Security Ministry, yet the funding for it is being stalled by the Transportation and Finance ministries. Olmert could easily cut through this problem, since speed-camera programs generate much more income, through fines and the benefits of reduced mortality and injuries to the economy, than they cost. The Treasury should be eager to finance such a program on budgetary grounds alone.
Politically, speed cameras would be a mixed bag, since some people resent having speed limits and other traffic laws better enforced. This problem could be mitigated by using the funds raised through fines to finance tax reductions on gasoline or other items.
In any case, polls in other countries indicate that these programs are ultimately popular, since they only impose upon offenders and clearly save many lives. And even if speed cameras were unpopular, this would be a classic example of where a leader, particularly one who relishes unpopularity, would put the public interest first.
‐ Push electoral reform. Israel is the only modern democracy in which not a single legislator is elected directly, by district. Polls show that there is support to move to a more mixed system in which some of the Knesset continues to be elected by party list, and some by districts. This reform supposedly cannot pass the Knesset; but Olmert, were he to launch a campaign on this issue, could take the people’s side and force the Knesset’s hand.
This stance would risk Olmert’s alliance with the religious parties, which oppose electoral reform. But it would be both legitimate and popular for Olmert to stand up to pressure from these parties.
Kadima is a party that lost its founder and its raison d’etre within a few months of its founding. It can only be saved by adopting a new cause that raises it above the party fray and above the miasma of corruption that the public believes politics has become.
The public’s distrust in government in general, and in the Knesset in particular, has reached incredible proportions. This actually creates a great opportunity. Electoral reform may be the only cause big enough to qualify as the reinvention of Israeli politics as we know it.
‐ Cut taxes. The Bank of Israel has just raised its projection for GDP growth in 2007 to 5.1 percent. Expansion at such a healthy clip means that tax revenues will pour into the Treasury. This too is a golden opportunity: to reduce Israel’s exorbitant tax burden, which continues to drive some of our best young workers and entrepreneurs abroad, and to make it very difficult for small businesses and salaried workers to earn a living.
Serious tax reductions, of the sort the U.S. and the U.K. made in the 1980s, would significantly boost the economy, keep tax revenues high, reduce unemployment and poverty, and increase aliya and the return of Israelis living abroad.
Binyamin Netanyahu claims he will do this. Why shouldn’t Olmert take away his thunder?
There are plenty of other constructive policies Olmert could promote, concerning the environment, religious-secular relations, the Diaspora, and on the diplomatic front. But even in the best of times, and for the most popular prime ministers, it is difficult to push through a single major reform that will change the country for the good.
First Sharon, and now Olmert, have acted as if the only way out of a political corner is to make some dramatic international move such as “disengagement” or “convergence.” This avenue is now blocked, and even such pale imitations as meeting with Mahmoud Abbas have lost their luster.
In this context, it behooves Olmert to discover a neglected arena called domestic policy. This does not mean he can ignore the international arena, far from it. But he cannot succeed there, only engage in damage control, or at best make small improvements.
If Olmert truly gets to work, it may not be too late to save himself from joining a string of failed ex-prime ministers, and save his party into the bargain.
Though founded on an already-defunct foreign-policy program, Kadima could be the first party in Israeli history to take domestic policy seriously. Such a shift could, in itself, have a revolutionary impact on Israeli politics.
– This first appeared in the Jerusalem Post and is reprinted with permission.