Throughout his career he has remained a complete cynic, basically a right-winger but willing to pretend to be a liberal when faced with leftists.
So, I told myself, this is just another cynical speech. But suddenly a ghastly thought struck me: No, the man believes what he is saying!
Hard as it is to imagine, it seems that Olmert really believes that this is a successful war. That he is winning. That he has radically changed Israel's situation. That he is building a New Middle East. That he is a historic leader, far superior to Ariel Sharon (who, after all, was beaten in Lebanon and who allowed Hizbullah to build up its arsenal of rockets). That the longer he is allowed to go on with the war, the more his stature in history will grow.
Ehud Olmert has obviously cut himself off from reality. He lives in a bubble all by himself. His speeches show that he has a very real problem.
Of all the dangers facing Israel now, this is the most severe. Because this man is deciding, quite simply, the fate of millions: who will die, who will become a refugee, whose world will be shattered.
BUT OLMERT'S problem with megalomania is nothing compared to what has happened to Amir Peretz.
Exactly nine months ago, after his election as Labor Party chairman, Peretz made a speech in Tel-Aviv's Rabin Square in which he revealed his dream: that in the no-man's land between Israel and the Gaza Strip a football field will be built, and a match between the Israeli children of Sderot and the Palestinian children of nearby Bet-Hanoun will take place. An Israeli Martin Luther King.
Nine month's later, a monster has been born to us.
In the Knesset election campaign, Peretz appeared as a social revolutionary. He announced that he would change the face of Israeli society, set new national priorities, cut billions from the military budget and transfer them to education, welfare and measure to reduce the glaring gap between rich and poor. As a veteran peace-lover, he would, of course, achieve peace with the Palestinians and the entire Arab world.
This won him the votes of many citizens, including many who would normally never consider voting for the Labor Party.
What followed is history. He seduced himself, when Olmert offered him the Ministry of Defense. That was still Olmert the cynic. He knew, as we all did, that Peretz was walking into a trap, that as a rank civilian without serious military experience he would be easy prey for the generals. But Peretz did not shrink back. The supreme aim of his life is to become Prime Minister, and in order to become a credible candidate he believed that he must present himself as a security expert.
Since then, Peretz has become a rabid warmonger. Not only does he endorse all the demands of the generals, not only does he act as their spokesman - he has also helped to push Israel into war, and since then he has been demanding that it should continue, enlarge, widen, kill more, destroy more, occupy more. He himself declared, "Nasrallah will never forget the name Amir Peretz!" - like a spoilt child inscribing his name on a tourist attraction.
At the moment, he is trying to be more extreme even than Olmert. While the Prime Minister is afraid of continuing to advance, fearing that too many casualties from the rockets and the battle on the ground might cloud the brilliance of his victory, Peretz wants to reach the Litani River, whatever the cost. There's no other way - if one wants to become Prime Minister, one has to walk over dead bodies.
Thus a monster has been born to us. Rosemary's Baby.
TODAY, THE 25th day of the war, we can draw up an interim balance. What were the aims? What are
"To destroy Hizbullah".
Who would have believed it, but on the 25th day Hizbullah is still standing and fighting. A few thousand fighters against the fifth strongest army in the world. Nobody speaks anymore about eliminating it. Not Olmert, not Peretz, not even Dan Halutz - the third corner of this unholy triangle.
"To weaken Hizbullah".
That is a watered down version of the first aim. It is more convenient, because it cannot be measured. After all, in any war both sides are weakened. People are killed and wounded, arms are destroyed, installations demolished. But while the Israeli army can mobilize another division and another one, and the Americans are rushing more bombs to us, can Hizbullah absorb such losses?
Nobody knows how many fighters the organization has lost. The Israeli army distributes estimates, without being able to prove them. The Lebanese speak about far smaller numbers, and do not have any proof either.
But that is not the main thing. An organization like Hizbullah has no problem in raising more and more volunteers for "holy war". Be their losses as they may, after the war the organization will train as many new fighters as necessary. Their arsenals will also be replenished with new weapons arriving from Iran and Syria. The border is long, it is impossible to seal it.
"To push Hizbullah away from the border".
That is the crumpled aim, after the two preceding ones were shown to be unattainable. It, too, has not been realized yet, and never will be, because it is also unattainable. Most Hizbullah fighters are local boys of the South Lebanese towns and villages. They will continue to be there, overtly or covertly. No international force can prevent that, and certainly not the Lebanese Army.
The rockets can be moved further away. How many kilometers? Ten? Twenty? That will not remove the threat from Nahariya, Haifa and Tel-Aviv - especially since the range of the missiles is bound to grow with time, when technologically more advanced types arrive.
"To kill Hassan Nasrallah".
For the time being, so it seems, the report of his death was an exaggeration, to quote Mark Twain. True, in a kind of parody of the Entebbe exploit, Nasrallah was pulled out of a hospital in Baalbek, but it was another Hassan Nasrallah. Oops.
In the meantime, the original Nasrallah is flourishing. Compared to the kitschy speeches of Olmert, with their endless clichés and the fist thumping on the table, the Hizbullah leader comes over as a sober speaker, measured and mostly quite credible.
"To return to the Israeli army the power of deterrence".
Nobody has any doubt that the Israeli army is a good, professional army, capable of defeating regular armies. But this war proves that it is not capable of achieving a military decision against an able guerilla organization with determined fighters. If Hizbullah is alive and kicking after 25 days, the deterrence power of the Israeli army has been weakened - whatever happens from now on.
From this point of view, the war has harmed the security of Israel. It has proved that the Israeli rear is exposed, that the Hizbullah fighters are not inferior to the Israeli soldiers, that there is no de-luxe war, that the Air Force cannot win without land forces. Not even in ideal circumstances, when the other side has no anti-air defense to speak of.
Some comfort themselves with the thought that "the Arabs have seen that we are crazy". We react to a small local provocation with an orgy of killing and destruction, destroying whole countries, a sort of national amok. But running amok is not a policy. It does not solve any problem. It is an uncontrollable reflex. It does not allow for straight thinking. It even allows the other side to manipulate us with premeditated provocations.
"Deploying an International Force along the border".
That is a kind of emergency exit, after all the other aims have gone up in smoke.
At the beginning of the war, Olmert himself strenuously objected to such a force, because it would restrict the freedom of action of the Israeli army. Clearly, no international force will dare to come, unless there is a cease-fire in place and an agreement with Hizbullah has been reached. Nobody wants to be exposed to cross-fire. Therefore, this force will also have to serve Hisbullah's interests, for fear of a guerilla war starting against it. Have all the sacrifices been made for this?
"We shall create a new situation in the Middle East".
This aim has indeed been achieved - but not the way Olmert told himself (and us).
The long-range results of the war are not immediately obvious. They belong to the category defined by Bismarck as "imponderables" - things that cannot be measured.
Every day on their TV screens tens of millions of Arabs and hundred of millions of Muslims see the atrocious pictures of crushed babies, the sights of the horrible destruction. These are deeply imprinted in the consciousness of the masses and will leave behind them an accumulation of anger and hatred that is far more dangerous than an arsenal of missiles. In these 25 days, thousands of new suicide bombers have been created. And as the stature of Nasrallah as the hero of the Arab world increases, so the respect for the "moderate" Arab regimes hit new lows - the very regimes that the US and Israel rely on for creating the New Middle East.
AFTER THE 25th day, the 26th will arrive, and so on and on. President Bush, who pushed us into this war to start with, is now pushing us to fight on ("Until the last Israeli soldier," as the saying goes.) Like Olmert, he lives in an imaginary world.
Bush, Olmert and their like can incite and draw the masses behind them, until the call of "the Emperor is naked" finds receptive ears.
One of the most sickening sights of the war is the picture of the international diplomats doing everything they can to enable Olmert & Co. to go on with the war. The UN has long since become an agent of the White House. Hypocrisy and sanctimoniousness are having a field day, while lives are being destroyed and the dead buried on both sides of the border.
Olmert wants to "gain" as many days as possible for continued fighting. What sort of gain is this? We are conquering South Lebanon as flies conquer fly-paper. Generals present maps with impressive arrows to show how Hizbullah is being pushed north. That might be convincing - if we were talking about a front-line in a war with a regular army, as taught in Staff College. But this is a different war altogether. In the conquered area, Hizbullah people remain, and our soldiers are exposed to attacks of the kind in which Hizbullah has excelled from its first day.
So we shall get to the Litani River. Beyond it, there is another river, and another one. Lebanon has an abundance of rivers we can get to.
Perhaps it would be worthwhile for these two junkies, Olmert and Peretz, to come down from their "high" and study the map.
Uri Avnery is a veteran Israeli journalist and peace activist in Gush Shalom.