Surviving to Fight Another Day, Olmert Outmaneuvers Rivals

A year into his troubled term as prime minister, Ehud Olmert told a French newspaper he was “indestructible.”

That was in May 2007 — before a scathing report on Olmert’s handling of the inconclusive 2006 war in Lebanon, a protracted face-off with Hamas in the Gaza Strip, the disclosure of his prostate cancer and a corruption scandal that has rattled the prime minister’s already restive coalition government.

Still, Olmert remains in power, apparently set on proving he is one of Israel’s great political survivors.

Though grayer and looking wearier than when he stepped in for his stricken predecessor, Ariel Sharon, in January 2006, the 62-year-old marathon runner still acts like an incumbent certain of re-election, despite approval ratings in the low double digits.

Commentators attribute Olmert’s resilience to his career of more than three decades in the Knesset, which trained him in tough parliamentary power plays. Though he lacks the military pedigree of many former generals who took Israel’s top office, paradoxically this may have prompted Olmert to delegate key security roles while assuming a more Olympian overview.

Defying pundits who predicted he would go public with the target of Israel’s airstrike in Syria last September for the sake of a popularity payoff, Olmert instead let America’s Central Intelligence Agency publicize findings that Damascus had been building a secret nuclear reactor.

“The word in the IDF and the intelligence services is that Olmert knows how to authorize action and press ahead,” one senior Israeli security source told JTA on condition of anonymity. “He’s a CEO rather than some old warrior who has to knuckle down on every detail and exult in every victory.”

Olmert may also benefit from a perceived absence of worthy rivals in a country fed up with deadlocked peace talks and corruption scandals.

While opinion polls show opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu winning an election were it held today, and Defense Minister Ehud Barak beating out Olmert, the vote is still a ways off.

Satirist Yair Lapid noted that Israelis “both want a new type of politics and deliberate between voting for either the former prime minister or the former-former-prime minister,” referring to Barak and Netanyahu.

The tension between Netanyahu and Barak apparently allowed Olmert to survive a threatened schism in his coalition last week.

Barak, who leads the Labor Party and has stepped up his criticism of Olmert since new bribery allegations against the prime minister in May, had pledged to back a Knesset bill to dissolve parliament.

Olmert, the Kadima Party’s leader, brandished both carrot and stick. First he threatened to fire Labor from the government, and then he satisfied Barak’s call for reform by pledging to hold a Kadima primary — in which Olmert could, in theory, be toppled by party rivals — by September.

Barak backed down — or, in the words of one Ma’ariv columnist, “wet his pants.”

A Kadima-Labor split would have brought on early elections, effectively giving Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud the government, polls show.

Though Olmert won another few months’ reprieve, that could disappear if there are further developments in the corruption case involving American financier Morris Talansky.

Talansky has testified that he gave Olmert more than $150,000 in cash handouts and unpaid loans over the course of nearly a decade and a half before Olmert became prime minister. Should Attorney General Menachem Mazuz find sufficient evidence of bribery, he will order an indictment of the prime minister. Olmert has promised to resign if charged.

But Olmert has denied all wrongdoing in the case and hopes his lawyers will be able to demolish Talansky in cross-questioning scheduled for July 17 in open court.

Should Talansky’s credibility be shaken, polls suggest, Olmert might win the Kadima primary and remain the party’s head — beating back such challengers as Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz.

That would mean another reprieve.

But beyond that?

To be remembered well, and to win another term as prime minister, Olmert may need to achieve something spectacular.

Though Olmert has relaunched peace talks with the Palestinian Authority and Syria, signed a cease-fire agreement with Hamas and made overtures to Lebanon, it may take a diplomatic miracle to secure a real achievement on any of these fronts over the course of the next few months.

Then there is the looming threat of Iran’s nuclear program and the Israeli pre-emptive strike it may invite. Olmert was nearly destroyed politically by the relatively limited Lebanon war; a much more fateful conflict with Iran would be a make-or-break point for his career.

“Ehud Olmert believes that in the months that he has left, he will succeed in producing a document with the Syrians or with Abu Mazen,” wrote veteran Israeli columnist Nahum Barnea, using the nickname for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, in the daily Yediot Achronot. “He will have a lever with which to raise himself, a legacy to look back upon.

“His faith in his strength is laudable,” Barnea wrote. “Like the frog who was about to drown in a bucket of cream, he kicks his legs vigorously, hoping that the cream will turn into butter.”

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