Olmert Buys Time


By staving off early elections this week through a last-minute deal with the Labor Party, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has given himself more time to try to negotiate peace deals with both the Palestinian Authority and Syria. But opposition leaders warn that any such deal would surely bring down the government.

“He might have more time to work out an agreement, but it would be much easier to bring about early [general] elections,” Silvan Shalom of the Likud Party told The Jewish Week. “The Shas Party would quit [the government] and half the members of Kadima would oppose it.”

Shalom is the author of the bill that would have dissolved the Knesset Wednesday and led to the collapse of the government and early elections. He said he withdrew the bill when the head of the Labor Party, Defense Minister Ehud Barak, said he would not support it after winning a promise from Olmert that his Kadima Party would hold primary elections no later than Sept. 25.

Shalom noted that Barak had reneged also on an earlier promise to withdraw from the coalition after the release of the Winograd report that was critical of Olmert’s performance in the war with Hezbollah in the summer of 2006.

Last month, Barak had called for Olmert to step aside pending the outcome of a criminal corruption case against him. The primary witness against him, Long Island businessman Rabbi Morris Talansky, is slated to be cross-examined by Olmert’s lawyers during a pre-trial deposition July 17.

In his previous testimony, the rabbi said he gave Olmert envelopes stuffed with money on numerous occasions over a 13-year period before he became prime minister. Olmert acknowledged receiving the money — at least $150,000 — but insisted that it was all used for legitimate campaign purposes.
The 11th-hour deal between Olmert and Barak was somewhat of a surprise to some because “in the last few days there seemed no good way out for Barak to get out of the ultimatum” he gave Olmert, said Tamir Sheafer, a professor of politics at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University.

He argued that the agreement Barak exacted from Olmert is one that gave him basically what he wanted in the first place.

“We tend to attack politicians and to say they got chicken at the last minute,” Sheafer explained. “But at the beginning when Barak put forward his ultimatum, he specifically stated that he does not want to go to new elections and that he wanted to preserve the coalition. He only wanted to replace Olmert and he said that very clearly. So he achieved what he wanted.”

Barak’s only compromise was that he wanted the Kadima primaries held earlier, Sheafer noted. Olmert wanted them delayed until after his lawyers had a chance to destroy Talansky’s credibility on the witness stand. Based on his lawyers’ success, Olmert will decide whether to run in the primary himself.

But another opposition party member, Zevulun Orlev of the National Union-National Religious Party, was not as sanguine about Barak’s about-face. Orlev was quoted as accusing Barak of “zigzagging and spitting in the face of the citizens of Israel.”
“Olmert, the envelope-receiver, and Barak, the breaker of promises, have crossed all bounds of cynicism with the stinking maneuver that they have hatched together,” he said.
Should Olmert decide to run for party leader again and win, that would apparently be fine with Barak, according to Gerald Steinberg, a political science professor at Bar-Ilan University.

“Barak said he would work with whomever Kadima chooses, which could very well be Olmert,” he said. “These guys are survivors and they work well together. There is no sense that Barak has a problem with continuing to work with Olmert.”

With his coalition troubles resolved for the time being, Olmert was free to continue negotiating for the release of three Israeli soldiers. Two of them, Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev, were abducted in 2006 in a cross-border raid by Hezbollah troops in Lebanon. Both men were believed to have been seriously wounded at the time of their kidnapping.

Hezbollah has adamantly refused to say whether the men are dead or alive and Olmert has reportedly promised to bring a Hezbollah offer for their release to his cabinet Sunday. Steinberg, noting that public pressure for their release has increased in recent days, said he believes a prisoner exchange will take place next week.

Talks for the release of the third Israeli captive, Gilad Shalit, were held this week in Cairo by Olmert and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. Egypt is serving as the intermediary in arranging last week’s cease-fire between Israel and Hamas, a terrorist group that controls the Gaza Strip and which abducted Shalit in a cross-border raid two years this week.

Media reports said that Hamas is demanding the release of 450 prisoners in return for Shalit and that Israel has so far agreed to release 71 of them.
“Talks are going to have to go somewhere quickly because the pressure is high,” Steinberg said. “He cannot postpone dealing with these issues. Every stage in the [negotiating] process has been subjected to political and public pressure and court involvement. And if there are no serious negotiations on Shalit, there will be huge pressure on Olmert to justify the cease-fire with Hamas in Gaza. He has justified it by saying he had to get Shalit out.”

There were two violations of the cease-fire this week when Islamic Jihad fired rockets into Sderot, causing two women there to be treated for shock. And Hamas said it fired a mortar shell into Israel. Both groups claimed their actions were in response to Israeli military action.

Steinberg dismissed such claims, saying: “There are always excuses and they are irrelevant. There are always tests to see if Israel will respond. Israel will give it a few more weeks and if these are the only incidents Israel will live with them.”
In response to this week’s cease-fire violations, Israel announced that it would temporarily close its border crossings into Gaza through which food, medicine and other supplies have been flowing the last few days.

But Steinberg warned that if the rockets attacks continue and Israelis are seriously injured
or killed, “Israel will respond right away” with military action.