All signs point to Olmert’s ouster

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, shown at the Knesset in May, 2008, is facing a probable ouster that is expected to end his political career. (Brian Hendler)

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, shown at the Knesset in May, 2008, is facing a probable ouster that is expected to end his political career. (Brian Hendler)

JERUSALEM (JTA) – The media and the political establishment in Israel already have decided: Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is through.

The cover on Ma’ariv’s weekend political magazine shows a framed portrait of a sad-looking Olmert on the wall of a government office with the caption “Ehud Olmert – Prime Minister 2006-2008.”

Now his Kadima Party is preparing for a new leadership contest and the country could be heading toward new elections.

The political fallout comes in the wake of the latest corruption scandal involving the prime minister, this one alleging that Olmert took improper funds from an American fund-raiser.

There is wide consensus that Olmert’s legal team made a major strategic blunder in not cross- examining the American fund-raiser, Morris Talansky, immediately after his damning pre-trial testimony May 27 against the prime minister.

Talansky painted a picture of envelopes stuffed with dollars for Olmert’s personal use. The prime minister’s lawyers claim they can explain or disprove each and every item, that Olmert did not commit any crime and that he only did what all Israeli politicians legitimately do to finance election campaigns or speaking engagements abroad.

But the fact that the lawyers decided to defer their cross-examination of Talansky until July 17 left a pall of unchallenged allegations in the air. This led to scathing press against Olmert and demands in the political echelon for his resignation or, at least, temporary leave of absence.

Tainted by unrefuted allegations of corruption, Olmert no longer has the moral authority to make major decisions on peace or war, the critics charged.

Labor leader Ehud Barak fired the first shot in the political arena. The day after Talansky’s testimony, the defense minister issued an ultimatum: Kadima must change its leader if the party wanted to continue its coalition partnership with Labor.

“I don’t believe the prime minister can simultaneously run the government and deal with his personal issues,” Barak said.

Although Barak did not place a deadline on his ultimatum, his move was enough to trigger a process that almost certainly will lead to Olmert’s ouster. With the defection of Labor or some other disaffected coalition partner a distinct possibility, Kadima has been left with no alternative but to gear up for a new leadership primary.

Given the huge wave of public sentiment against him, it is obvious that Olmert cannot run. That has cleared the way for a four-way race with Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz, Internal Security Minister Avi Dichter and Housing Minister Meir Shetreet.

Kadima’s 65,000-plus members will choose a new leader probably some time in September. Olmert has asked only that the moves be delayed sufficiently to give him a chance to clear his name, enabling him to leave office and a political career spanning more than 40 years with some dignity.

Two possibilities emerge for a government without Olmert: The new leader of Kadima could form a coalition based on the parties in the current Knesset, or there could be new elections.

The Likud Party, which is leading in the polls, wants new elections immediately. Labor and Kadima prefer building a new coalition and putting off elections for as long as possible.

Shas is the problem for Labor and Kadima. The fervently Orthodox party has indicated it would not be happy to serve under Livni, the front-runner to take over for Olmert. Shas also is demanding increased child allowances as a condition for joining any new coalition, which without Shas is not possible.

So the smart money is on elections within the next six months. Former Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom, among the Likud’s most astute politicians, already has put forth a bill for the dissolution of the Knesset, with Nov. 11 as the favored election day.

Although there are several candidates to succeed Olmert, the front-runners are Livni, Barak and the Likud’s Benjamin Netanyahu.

Livni, who would become Israel’s second female prime minister after Golda Meir, is perceived as squeaky clean and thus would have a head start at the polls after the public revulsion over the Olmert-Talansky scandal.

Although her opponents denigrate her experience, she has a long record of public service. Livni served in the Mossad intelligence agency in the early 1980s, and later as the director of the Government Companies Authority.

She entered politics in 1999 and has been the minister of immigrant absorption, of justice and of foreign affairs. Livni is committed to peace with the Palestinians and is conducting negotiations with the former Palestinian prime minister, Ahmad Qureia.

Livni comes from a revisionist background. Her father, Eitan, was an Irgun fighter and a Herut Knesset member from 1973 to 1984.

She is Olmert’s official deputy, but lost points with the prime minister when she said the prime minister should resign after the first interim Winograd report on the 2006 Lebanon War was published in April 2007. Olmert has never forgiven her; he and Mofaz have been coordinating a “stop Livni” campaign inside Kadima.

Mofaz is a former chief of staff and defense minister who led Operation Defensive Shield, which broke the brunt of the second Palestinian intifada in the West Bank in April 2002. He is one of the more hawkish members of Kadima, sees peacemaking as a process that will take generations and holds that for now, the conflict must simply be managed.

Dichter also has a security background, having served as the Shin Bet chief and now as minister of internal security. He is the new kid on the block, and pundits believe Dicher eventually will throw his weight behind Livni.

Shetreet, a whiz kid from a poor Sephardi family, served as the mayor of Yavne while still in his 20s and became a Knesset member at 33. He headed the Jewish Agency for Israel and served in various governments as minister of finance, of justice and of housing.

In 1999, Shetreet made an unsuccessful bid for the Likud leadership against Ariel Sharon and Olmert.

The latest published poll on the projected Kadima primary shows Livni well ahead of her rivals in all the key categories: integrity, foreign policy, security and the economy.

In polls for the national leadership, she finishes second to Netanyahu and ahead of Barak. A poll by the Dialog group published May 30 in Ha’aretz shows the Likud under Netanyahu winning 29 seats in the Knesset, Kadima under Livni 23 and Labor under Barak 15.

Significantly, the polls show Likud being able to assemble a coalition of right-wing and religious parties without Kadima or Labor. But the polls also show that Likud could build a powerful alternative coalition with Kadima and Labor without any of the other hawkish or religious parties.

It’s still early to know what will happen; between now and November in Israeli politics is a very long time.

But one factor seems certain – Ehud Olmert’s political career is over.

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