Olmert’s Uncertainty Could Last Months


Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s visit to Washington this week to meet with President George W. Bush and address the AIPAC convention afforded him a brief respite from the scandals back home that some analysts believe he may weather for months to come.

“More than 60 members of the Knesset don’t want to go to elections,” observed Gerald Steinberg, a political science professor at Bar-Ilan University. “All the Pensioner Party members with their seven seats and the ultra-Orthodox parties don’t want elections. And [Labor leader Ehud] Barak doesn’t really want them.”

Barak, who is also the defense minister, has called on Olmert to either step aside and allow his Kadima Party to select a successor or to face new elections when he withdraws his party from Olmert’s coalition government — but he has not set a deadline.

The reason for the reluctance for new elections, Steinberg said, is that the Likud Party headed by Benjamin Netanyahu would win “and everybody knows that.”

Although Olmert is reported to have privately told Kadima leaders that he would not stand in the way of a Kadima primary to replace him, he has not said that publicly and several Kadima leaders are saying he should have a chance to defend himself against corruption charges.

His lawyers are preparing to cross-examine Long Island businessman Rabbi Morris Talansky no later than July 17. Last month, the rabbi testified that he gave Olmert envelopes over the course of 15 years stuffed with more than $150,000 in cash.
“The lawyers will try to take apart Talansky, an old man of 75,” said Shmuel Sandler, a professor at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies. ”These are the best lawyers in the country. But it could backfire if they tear him apart.”

Unless prosecutors soon indict Olmert, Sandler said that “ultimately Olmert is going to be judged more publicly than legally. If there were sins committed, an early sin was nominating [Abraham] Hirchson as minister of the treasury and a Labor Party leader to be the minister of defense.”

He was referring to the indictment this week of Hirchson on charges that he stole more than $1 million from two organizations he headed from 1998 to 2005 — the National Workers Organization and a subsidiary, Nili. And the Labor Party leader who served as defense minister, Amir Peretz, was widely criticized for his handling of the inconclusive war with Hezbollah in the summer of 2006.

“Even if he comes out clean [in the corruption scandal], the public can’t forgive him that he gave the two most important positions” in his cabinet to those men, Sandler said. “If he doesn’t resign, there will be elections by November.”

As to early elections, he replied: “I don’t think Barak, with all his desire not to have new elections, will be able to stand the heat from his own party and the public. And Shas is now making new noises that it wants increased funding for large families. That means that it is ready to go to elections” because without that money it would withdraw from the coalition, bringing about its demise.

“Olmert might give them the money, but it would not add to his public standing,” Sandler said. “And if he gives it to them, Barak would really be in trouble” with his own party, which has consistently opposed blackmail by right-wing parties.

Olmert in his speech Tuesday night before American Israel Public Affairs Committee made only a passing reference to his corruption investigation when he referred to “political developments in Israel, which I’m sure you are all aware of.”

As he said the line, he looked up at his audience as though expecting a laugh and many complied with a knowing chuckle. But there was only mild applause when Olmert spoke of his efforts to reach a peace agreement with the Palestinians. (The same audience sat on its hands when Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice mentioned the talks in her speech earlier in the day.)

Olmert’s image was beamed throughout the room on huge TV screens that magnified his every expression. Observers said the stress of the corruption probe did not show and that he looked no different than he has in the past. He delivered his speech, they said, in a straightforward, competent and professional manner.

The audience reserved some of its loudest applause for Olmert’s warm praise of Bush, whom he called a “remarkable friend.” Many in the audience — perhaps 40 percent — stood to clap, a demonstration of the affection many in the Jewish community have for Bush and his strong support of Israel.

Olmert spoke also of the menace Iran poses to world peace as it strives to acquire nuclear weapons.

“The Iranian threat must be stopped by all possible means,” he said. “International economic and political sanctions on Iran, as crucial as they may be, are only an initial step. … Israel will not tolerate the possibility of a nuclear Iran, and neither should any other country in the free world.”

Olmert was to discuss Iran in his meeting with Bush. Steinberg said Olmert was expected to “push the Americans into doing something” about Iran.

“Olmert is saying Israel will do something if the U.S. does not act first,” he said. “The question is whether this is going to shake the Iranians up and lead to a reassessment in Iran that Israel is contemplating doing something [militarily]. It is coming to a head in this round [of talks with Bush]. We’ll go on with the Palestinian peace process, but Iran for us is 90 percent of the game.”

Asked how blunt Olmert would be with Bush, Steinberg replied: “The language is that if military force is not used, Iran will have a nuclear weapon in less than a year.”

But Yitzchak Reiter of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem said he believes that although Iran was discussed with Bush, Olmert may have been seeking Bush’s approval for the Israeli military to conduct a major operation against Hamas terrorists in the Gaza Strip.
“I don’t believe that Olmert went only because of the Iranian issue because that doesn’t seem like an urgent issue,” he said. “I think that Olmert is looking for an issue that will help him in the internal issue of his popularity here. The Iranian issue doesn’t seem to be something that can affect Israeli society. It does not seem that America will strike Iran so quickly because other [countries] speak of at least two years before Iran will have a bomb and there is talk of another round of sanctions.”