JERUSALEM (Feb. 27)
With Israeli elections now just a month away, the leaders of the three main parties are under mounting pressure. Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert of Kadima, well ahead in his bid for re-election, has become the target of vicious campaigns by Labor and Likud.
As they continue to trail badly in the polls, there are rumblings in both Likud and Labor about replacing their prime-ministerial candidates, Benjamin Netanyahu and Amir Peretz, before the March 28 vote.
Olmert, who became prime minister because of Ariel Sharon’s debilitating stroke earlier this year, has been singled out by the rival parties as Kadima’s weak underbelly.
The Likud is attacking him as inexperienced and irresolute in the face of the fundamentalist threat posed by Hamas and Iran. Likud copywriters have dubbed him “Smolmert,” a play on his name and the Hebrew word for left wing, and argue that with him at the helm, Israelis cannot feel safe.
Labor is attacking what it alleges as Olmert’s corruption. Labor campaign ads highlight the acting prime minister’s expensive tastes, and imply that although he has never been convicted, standards of public conduct disqualify him from high office. A spate of recent newspaper articles has been fueling the Labor campaign. A seven-page spread in the Ha’aretz weekend magazine, entitled “With a Little Help From His Friends,” accuses Olmert of being soft on party activists who have broken the law, of having rich donor-friends and of skirting the bounds of legality himself on more than one occasion.
It highlights a case that goes back to the 1988 elections in which Olmert was the Likud’s election treasurer and the party employed a system of covering up illegal donations by providing donors with receipts for services never rendered. Olmert was indicted, but claimed he had only been responsible for donations abroad, and in 1997 was acquitted of any wrongdoing. The article fails to pin on Olmert any actual violation of the law, but paints a picture of a smooth operator stretching legality to its limits.
Two more recent allegations could have greater impact. Olmert is accused of conducting a fictitious arbitration between the Betar Jerusalem football club and one of its top administrators, enabling the administrator to keep $1.1 million he said the club owed him. Olmert, according to the allegations, signed the arbitration deal without checking any of the facts or whether other creditors should have had priority.
There are also questions about the sale of Olmert’s Jerusalem home to American billionaire S. Daniel Abraham, a Middle East peace activist and donor to Olmert’s political campaigns.
Was the price of $2.69 million too high, and a means of camouflaging a huge political donation? And is the rent the Olmerts are paying to Abraham, $2,250 a month, to stay on while their new house is being renovated, too low, and tantamount to another illegal gift? Jerusalem estate agents are unanimous about the house price being fair, but most think the rent is too low. If so, the question is whether the figure was reached in a genuine business negotiation or was it part of a deliberate kickback?
State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss was expected to issue an opinion this week. Kadima strategists say if, as seems likely, he finds no wrongdoing, the corruption campaign could boomerang and actually help Olmert’s cause.
Indeed, so far there is no indication that either the Likud or the Labor anti-Olmert campaign is having any effect. Weekend polls show Kadima for the 7th week running with around 40 of the 120 Knesset seats, Labor with 20 and Likud with 15.
Those figures are exacerbating tensions in both the Likud and Labor camps. Internal polls in the Likud show that the party would win two more seats with former foreign minister Silvan Shalom as leader instead of Netanyahu.
This has led to some still-underground calls for a switch in the leadership before the election. That is highly unlikely. But if the Likud under Netanyahu gets less than 20 seats, Shalom will almost certainly challenge him as soon as the post-election dust settles.
In the meantime Netanyahu is considering one last desperate throw of the dice — drastically curbing the power of the Likud Central Committee. Considered the most despised body in Israeli politics, the Central Committee has the power to elect and influence the party’s Knesset members. If Netanyahu succeeds, his polls show the Likud would get another six seats. Other polls, however, show a gain of only one. If he fails and the committee retains its power, the Likud could crash to single figures.
Amir Peretz is similarly under pressure in Labor. Many in the party believe its relatively poor showing stems from his failure to come across as a genuine prime ministerial candidate.
Moshe Shachal, a former Labor Cabinet minister, said so openly over the weekend: “I may not vote Labor; I have no confidence in Amir Peretz,” Shachal told Ha’aretz. There is talk in Labor of Ofir Pines-Paz or Avishai Braverman possibly replacing Peretz before the election.
Again this is unlikely but almost certainly presages a leadership struggle as soon as the election is over.
In their desperation, some in Likud and Labor are talking about a possible coalition that would include them, the far right wing and the religious parties to keep Kadima out of office. The hope is that as an opposition party, Kadima, only founded recently by Sharon as a centrist alternative, would unravel.
But for Labor to join forces with Likud and the right in that way would be anathema to most of its leaders, especially Amir Peretz, who seems to rule it out.
On the contrary, if as election day approaches there is no change in the polls, a more likely scenario will be for Labor and Likud to vie over which of them will join a Kadima-led coalition.
The two parties will likely tell prospective voters that they need to be the second-biggest party to be sure of a place in the coalition, and to have as many seats as possible to have real influence on the new government’s direction.