Tel Aviv — Having survived an early attempt at a putsch within his own party and an immediate outpouring of public protest, Ehud Olmert’s tenure as prime minister now seems to be in the hands of his chief coalition partner, the Labor Party.
With the party divided over whether to oust Olmert immediately to satisfy public sentiment or prop up the coalition to avoid early elections likely to crown Benjamin Netanyahu and Likud, all eyes are now fixed on the May 28 Labor leadership primary.
Both frontrunners in the Labor race, former Prime Minister Ehud Barak and former Shin Bet chief Ami Ayalon, have called for Olmert to step down. But on Tuesday, Barak said he’d be willing to serve as defense minister in a lame-duck government under Olmert for the sake of stability. Barak’s seemingly contradictory offer reflects ambivalence in the Labor Party about triggering a new election. A poll published on Wednesday in the Yediot Achronot newspaper found that more than half of Labor Party members support staying in the government. “I am looking at the alternatives” to Olmert, said Labor Knesset member Nadia Hilu. “The alternatives can lead to early elections and a right-wing led government. Every small chance that can lead to a process that brings about this result I oppose.”
The suggestion is being seen as an attempt by the former prime minister to hedge his bets. While Barak wants to keep in step with public sentiment that is overwhelmingly against Olmert, temporarily propping up the government buys him time to rebuild his popularity in the Defense Ministry ahead of new elections.
Barak’s image was tarnished when his government collapsed after the failure of peace talks with the Palestinians at Camp David in 2000 and the subsequent outbreak of the Palestinian uprising. The Labor hopeful had kept quiet during the first week after an Israeli government commission issued a blistering critique of the government’s performance last summer during the Lebanon war. Supporters of Ayalon ridiculed Barak’s offer as an awkward maneuver that smacks of politics as usual at a time when voters are thirsting for candidates perceived as no-nonsense and straightforward.
“With the Labor Party sitting in an Olmert government, it serves the personal interest of Barak. … If we sit in the government of Olmert — not only will [Labor] lose all credibility, it will also implode and never return to power,” said Avishai Braverman, a Labor parliament member, in an interview with Israel Radio.
“We are saying that we won’t sit in an Olmert government for a simple reason: He can never be the rehabilitator, and there is a need for rehabilitation,” Braverman said.
The Yediot poll of Labor Party members suggested that Ayalon and Barak are fighting a close race, with three other candidates — Labor chairman and Defense Minister Amir Peretz among them — trailing at a distance. In the first round, Barak would come out first with Ayalon a close second, but when surveyors asked about a runoff between the two, Ayalon got the most support. The debate in the Labor Party highlights how Olmert is still clinging to power by a thread even though the government survived several no-confidence motions on Monday by a comfortable margin.
“There’s a very delicate balance that could be broken at any moment,” said Uri Dromi, a spokesman for the Israel Democracy Institute. “In Kadima, I think they are calling each other on an hourly basis, making sure they don’t miss anything.”
In an effort to give the impression that Olmert was still in control, Kadima officials told Israeli reporters this week that they were negotiating to bring in the ultra-Orthodox party United Torah Judaism and that covert talks were being held with the Palestinians that might lead to a breakthrough in the summer.
The news of the talks was denied by Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat, and an aide to Netanyahu described the suggestion as “a charade.”
Zalman Shoval, a former ambassador to the U.S., said Olmert is just as weak as Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. “In terms of diplomatic initiatives [the government] can’t do anything. That was probably one reason and maybe the main reason Condoleezza Rice canceled her forthcoming trip to Israel.” Parliament members in Labor and Kadima prefer that Olmert is replaced by another parliament member from his party who could hold the coalition together rather than heading for elections immediately. One source close to Labor said there’s a prevailing sentiment in the party that Olmert will not be able to survive, and that if acting President Dalia Itzik has to intervene to seek a replacement, the only person who could take over is Shimon Peres, who turns 84 in August. “The only reason why [Peres] is the only possible candidate is because they will never be able to agree on anyone else,” said the source. “Olmert will never give the position to Tzipi Livni, especially after she called for his resignation last week. Peres is the only one who is not a threat. “The Winograd Commission claims that a prime minister must have experience, which you can’t claim Peres doesn’t have.” On Wednesday, Haaretz quoted senior members of Kadima as saying that Barak’s announcement is likely to trigger a process whereby the party would vote for a leader to replace Olmert.
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In that case, about 26,000 party members would choose between candidates such as Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz, Housing Minister Meir Sheetrit and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni. After bursting expectations last week that she would lead the internal rebellion against Olmert, Livni’s prospects for winning an internal vote have dimmed. With Likud calling for early elections, Shoval called Peres’ candidacy a “stopgap” and predicted that a parliamentary vote would be held as early as late 2007.
“The left is not happy with the government because it is afraid the government can’t advance any peace process initiatives,” he said. “The right is afraid that the government is so weak that when put under pressure it will agree to concessions that in the long run will be detrimental.”
Staff writer Stewart Ain contributed to this report from Israel.