Just a few years ago, Ehud Olmert was a guest at the home of Dov Hikind, the Democratic Assemblyman from Brooklyn. Olmert even spoke at one of Hikind's re-election fundraising events.
But this week, Hikind is spearheading an ad campaign aimed at creating a "discussion" that could convince Olmert to resign as Israel's prime minister. "Israel today is leaderless, clueless and ... the prime minister is confused and does not know where he is going," Hikind said in explaining why he took out the ads in seven Anglo-Jewish weekly newspapers from coast to coast. Hikind, a fierce supporter of Jewish settlements in the West Bank, hopes to stave off Olmert's plan to dismantle many of them in order to disengage Israel from the Palestinians.
"We've been watching things unfold and many of us are sitting back saying what are we going to do," Hikind says. "I'm going to create the debate and the discussion."
The ad says in part: "Ehud Olmert is weak when he should be strong, demonstrating ineptitude and incompetence in the face of growing threats from Hamas, Hezbollah, Iran and Syria. Olmert is arrogant, refusing to acknowledge and apologize for the defeat in Lebanon. Olmert is overwhelmed, failing to stop Kassam rocket fire on Sderot. ... Olmert does not have what it takes: integrity, decisiveness, determination, vision, the strength and skill to lead Israel. He has failed, and Israel cannot afford to fail with him."
Hikind noted that Israeli polls put Olmertís support at about 20 percent. "It hurts me to do something like this," he added. "But I'm deeply concerned about the well-being of Israel."
Hikind said a similar ad would appear within a month in major Israeli newspapers "with the direct involvement of Israelis," and in major American newspapers early next year. He said the "first five people" he approached gave him the $40,000 needed for the ads running this week, and that he was prepared to dip into his campaign war chest of more than $1 million to help pay for the other ads.
But just how successful Hikind will be with the campaign is debatable. Yossi Alpher, an Israeli political analyst, said he does not believe the effort will gain traction in Israel because Hikind is "an outsider, not an Israeli. ... If he wants influence, let him make aliyah and then publish what he wants. This will not seem legitimate in the eyes of Israelis."
"He is free to express his opinion, but Israelis are free to ignore him and my sense is that this is what people will do," Alpher added. "The majority of Israelis who are fed up with Olmert will perhaps get a kick out of it, but it will not have an appreciable influence. What would have influence is if a majority of the members of [Olmertís] Kadima Party abandoned the party."
Eran Lerman, executive director of the American Jewish Committee's Israel/Middle East Office, said he too did not believe the ads would have much impact in Israel except among the right wing who oppose relinquishing land to the Palestinians. But, he acknowledged, "people are seriously worried in the defense establishment and in the country at large, and I'm not surprised that people are making noises."
Dr. Joseph Frager, an American who is openly critical of Olmert and concerned that his proposed concessions would "hurt the people of Israel," said he welcomed the ad campaign. He noted that a majority of Israelis are also disenchanted with Olmert, but he said he did not know "how much traction this will ultimately get," or the degree to which it would "resonate with Israeli voters."
Asked about Alpher's belief that the ads here would have little impact on Israelis because Hikind is an American, Frager pointed out that "what Americans think is important to the way Israel works ... and has been helpful in shaping the policies of the State of Israel." He noted that former Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin had been "upset that American Jews were so opposed to his Oslo policy."
But Gerald Steinberg, a political science professor at Bar-Ilan University, said the only real influence on Israelis comes from "American government attitudes and maybe AIPAC [the American Israel Public Affairs Committee], but even then it is in a very limited way."
"It will not influence Israeli politics," Steinberg said of the ad campaign. "American Jews are free to express their opinions, but Israelis have to make the decisions. Americans for Peace Now also doesn't have any influence. And there is a certain resentment when pressures on the Israelis are initiated in the United States."
Doron Ben-Atar, a professor of history at Fordham University, said he found "much of the criticism of Olmert to be on the mark."
"Olmert did not perform in the most distinguished manner in the Lebanon War," he said. "His approval ratings dropped to the single digits. The issue with the ad is complicated, however, because Olmert heads a coalition of people who are equally in a tenuous political situation in Israel. His defense minister who also heads the Labor Party doesn't enjoy support in the aftermath of the Lebanon War. The security services have condemned the cease-fire because Kassam rockets continue to fly and Hamas is building up its military arsenal for the next roundî of fighting. Ben-Atar said the "most likely winner of the political turmoil" in Israel is Likud Party leader Benjamin Netanyahu. But he cautioned that Netanyahu could self-destruct "because of his tendency to make mistakes" involving lapses of judgment. For instance, Netanyahu is now being investigated for allegedly misusing Education Ministry funds to pay for polls that were allegedly used to advance his own political standing.
Hikind stressed that his campaign is aimed strictly at convincing Olmert to resign and not to see him replaced with anyone in particular. "I'm not playing politics here," he insisted.
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