Who will succeed Olmert?


(JTA) – Though the political jockeying to succeed Ehud Olmert began long before his announcement Wednesday that he would not seek re-election, the prime minister’s would-be successors face a tenuous political landscape.

In the short term, Olmert’s announcement means he will stay in office as a lame duck until his Kadima Party elects a new leader – either Sept. 17, when the primary is held, or a week later, when a runoff, if necessary, takes place.

Olmert then will tender his resignation to Israel’s president; however, by law Olmert will remain prime minister until Kadima’s new leader assembles a coalition government. Failure to muster a majority of at least 61 Knesset members in the coalition would trigger new general elections – for the Knesset and for prime minister. Otherwise, the next general elections are scheduled for 2010.

Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz are the leading contenders to win the Kadima primary, but it’s not clear how long either of them – or anyone else in Kadima – would last as prime minister.

Livni, the Olmert administration’s lead negotiator with the Palestinian Authority, is widely perceived as free of the corruption problems that have plagued other members of Olmert’s Cabinet. But her limited national security experience at a time when Israel faces the crucial question of whether or not to launch a pre-emptive strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities is seen as a significant weakness.

Mofaz, conversely, as a former defense minister and former army chief of staff, has substantial security experience. He is the Olmert administration’s point man on strategic negotiations with the United States, which have been focused on Iran’s suspected nuclear weapons program.

But Mofaz is seen as an uncharismatic politician, and he hasn’t been able to close the gap in polls against his rivals in Kadima nor other parties. Were he to win, the Iranian-born Mofaz would be Israel’s first non-Ashkenazi prime minister.

Internal Security Minister Avi Dichter is also likely to run for the leadership of Kadima, but trails both Mofaz and Livni in party polls.

Regardless of who emerges as the winner to succeed Olmert, new general elections for prime minister – and, by extension, the entire Knesset – may not be far away.

Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who leads the Labor Party, could trigger new general elections by pulling Labor out of the governing coalition. He has threatened to make that move before and repeatedly has called on Olmert to resign, but low popularity ratings have kept him from bolting the government. Barak, a former prime minister, has attributed his staying to Israel’s security needs.

Were Barak to pull out and the coalition to fall apart, Labor likely would lose Knesset seats in the general election to Likud, whose leader, Benjamin Netanyahu, is favored to win the next general election.

That likelihood may be enough to keep Labor in the government, extending the term of Olmert’s successor.

Notably, Olmert chose to announce his resignation when Barak, Livni and Mofaz all were out of the country. Livni was in Washington meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice, Barak was on a plane from the United States on his way back to Israel, and Mofaz was in New York on his way to Washington.

Olmert said Wednesday that he would not mettle in the Kadima primary and that he wants to engender a respectful and fair political transition.

In any case, by leaving the political stage in this way, Olmert is able to give his Kadima successor the incumbency advantage in the next general election whether it comes in the next few months or in 2010, as scheduled.

It also means that only Kadima members, and not the general electorate, will have a say in who becomes Israel’s next prime minister.

This will be the first primary for Kadima, which was founded in late 2005 by then-prime minister Ariel Sharon. Olmert became Kadima’s leader by default after Sharon’s debilitating stroke in January 2006 left the one-time Jerusalem mayor in charge of the party and the country.

Politics aside, another scenario that may extend the term of Olmert’s successor would be the approach of a make-it-or-break-it juncture for Iran’s nuclear program.

If Iran’s suspected nuclear weapons program is seen as on the cusp of bomb-making capability, Israel’s political parties might coalesce around a national unity government and respond with force to the threat.

Netanyahu already has said he would try to form such a government, and Mofaz has warned several times in recent weeks that an eventual Israeli attack on Iranian nuclear facilities is inevitable.

Recommended from JTA