Analysis || For Ehud Olmert, it's now or never
Benjamin Netanyahu may be unbeatable in January’s election, but if anyone can make the contest interesting, and unite the center-left bloc, it’s Ehud Olmert – provided he can overcome the legal hurdles in his path.
A day after announcing an early election, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu got into his armored car and made the short trip from his office to the official residence of President Shimon Peres. Veteran Government Press Office photographer Moshe Milner took their picture sitting side by side and having a cozy chat. Yet just two months ago, Netanyahu had his confidants rebuke Peres for daring to make public his opposition to the idea of an Israeli strike on Iran's nuclear facilities before the U.S. presidential election and without coordination with Washington. In the interim, Netanyahu adopted the same approach, or at least its first part.
If Peres could, he would have locked the iron gate of the President's Residence in Netanyahu's face. The prime minister knows he is not a welcome guest at the president's home. But he also knows that by the end of January, after the January 22 election results become official, it is Peres who will decide whom to entrust with forming Israel's 33rd government. So this is the time to be a good neighbor and tell the president, for the benefit of the TV cameras, "I will continue to consult with you, as we have during the last four years."
It's no secret that the Prime Minister's Bureau views Peres as a dormant candidate for prime minister. A few months ago, Netanyahu's close circle was convinced that Peres was about to resign the presidency and take the plunge back into politics. Someone in Netanyahu's circle even disseminated a wacky story to the effect that Peres would ask the Knesset to amend the law so he could be president and prime minister concurrently.
No more denials
Peres has no such intentions, though many people have approached him in this spirit. Some of them even showed him favorable polls. His reply to all of them is, "I plan to conclude my term as president, and after that I will decide." A mischievous smile accompanies the second part of that sentence. But with Peres, you never know. He will only be 91 when his term as president ends, in 2014.
On July 12, two days after former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was acquitted on two major charges against him - relating to the Morris Talansky and Rishon Tours cases - and convicted of breach of trust in the Investments Center case, Haaretz ran a story by this reporter quoting his remarks to a political personage on the eve of the acquittal. If he were to be acquitted of the major charges and also get safely through the Holyland affair trial now under way, he said, "I'll return to political life and run for prime minister. I'm the only politician who can run as a candidate for the center bloc. There's no one else there - neither Shaul Mofaz nor Yair Lapid nor Shelly Yacimovich [can do it]." In the same conversation, Olmert said he thought that if he ran, Lapid would join him.
That report was not what Olmert wanted to see in the paper. He did not want to irk the judges before the Investments Center verdict was handed down. That same day he spoke at an event. "I have no intention of becoming involved in political activity," he said with a broad smile. "I am busy with other things and only with them, and I suggest that no one try to drag my name into places I have no intention of being in or being involved in."
This week, Olmert was no longer issuing denials. People close to him, such as former cabinet secretary Yisrael Maimon, were sent to the media to prepare the ground for his return.
In an election campaign whose result looks foreordained, it is far from certain that an Olmert comeback would change much. According to a Maariv poll published yesterday, a party led by Olmert and Tzipi Livni will not endanger Netanyahu. What it will do is make the election campaign more interesting and more heated. In the political-security sphere, Olmert is the only contestant capable of facing Netanyahu head-on.
Olmert's admirers in Kadima are praying he will return, preferably with Tzipi Livni. Some in Kadima joked that MK Dalia Itzik, one of those admirers, was seen wearing an Orthodox head covering at the Western Wall and weeping against one of the cool stones. Olmert's rivals on the left of the political spectrum claimed that all his Hamlet-like agonizing is merely an exercise aimed at deterring the state prosecution from appealing his acquittals - a move that might now appear to be another gross intervention in politics, after the pretrial testimony by Talansky, which sealed Olmert's political fate and forced him to resign the premiership midterm.
"It's a hallucination born in the overheated brains of cynical people with all kinds of complexes," a source close to Olmert said. "Only characters like that are capable of believing that Olmert would conduct a campaign and run in the elections for the sole reason of cooling the state prosecution's ardor. Or, alternatively, that he would issue declarations about a return to politics during the next month [the time remaining to the prosecution to file an appeal] and then stop and say, 'Just kidding.'"
Quite a few people asked Olmert this week to announce that he is returning. "Take it easy," he told them, "I am not there yet. It will take another week or 10 days." His interlocutors wanted to know why. "Look," he told them, more or less in these words, "I am not committing suicide. I am not a hothead. I will not beat my head against the wall. Before deciding either way, I need to weigh things; think and check what is happening with me politically and judicially. First of all, if I thought there was someone out there who is capable of toppling Netanyahu - Livni, Lapid or Yacimovich - I would support each of them. Because I don't think [there is], and because no one thinks so, I am thinking about it and checking it out."
In the meantime, he has asked his lawyers to furnish him with a written interim summation of all the testimonies and evidence submitted against him in the Holyland trial, which deals with a housing project in Jerusalem in which he is accused of taking bribes. He wants to know whether his situation is better now or worse than it was before the indefatigable (and anonymous ) state's witness began testifying. He has also asked several leading law firms to draw up an opinion concerning his legal fitness to form a government while he is under indictment. Israeli law stipulates that a prime minister must leave office only after an absolute and final judgment against him is made in his case. It's clear that if Olmert runs and seeks a mandate to form a government, the High Court of Justice will be asked to render an opinion.
Olmert also told his guests that in-depth surveys are being conducted about his prospects, as head of Kadima, against Netanyahu. A few days ago, as Haaretz reported yesterday, he met with Avigdor Lieberman, the foreign minister and chairman of Yisrael Beiteinu. Next week he has meetings scheduled with Tzipi Livni and Kadima head Shaul Mofaz. "If I return," he says, "I don't intend to run alone and for Tzipi to run alone and for Mofaz to run alone." Olmert wants to head a united Kadima party, like in the old days.
There are also family considerations. His wife and children are not enthusiastic about a political comeback, to put it mildly. But in the face of their understandable opposition, Olmert has a powerful desire to return. In his mind, he was removed from office in a kind of judicial putsch, without being allowed to serve out his full term, and was accused and then acquitted. He will not get another chance. At the time of the next election, if it takes place on time, in 2017, he will be 71, in stark contrast to almost all the presidents and prime ministers in the Western world, who are around 50 (not counting Peres, of course ). Olmert knows that it's now or never. The problem is that now is a bit soon for him.
The limits of friendship
Olmert is considered the only politician in the center-left arena who is capable of getting the support of members of the right-wing bloc in the critical post-election stage of going to the president. It's worth remembering that at Olmert's low point as prime minister, in October 2006, two months after the Second Lebanon War, Avigdor Lieberman brought his party into the government coalition - which seemed about to fall apart - and stayed there until January 2008.
Lieberman left the Olmert government in wake of the Annapolis Conference, which convened in November 2007, following the start of the talks between Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas on the so-called "core issues." Lieberman drew a clear red line in the sand.
After Olmert left politics under a cloud, Lieberman gained access to the full details of Olmert's proposal to Abbas (to which Abbas has not responded, to this day ). It is the most far-reaching plan ever made by an Israeli prime minister to a Palestinian interlocutor. Lieberman said he was appalled when he read the details.
So, with all due respect to friendship and the seeds the two still crack together at Beitar Jerusalem soccer games in Teddy Stadium, Olmert cannot include Lieberman in his bloc. Here is what Lieberman said in a radio program this Wednesday: "I have had excellent relations with Olmert for many years, irrespective of the positions we held. But there is no doubt that we will first of all want to form a national coalition, with the national camp. It is essential for the national camp to continue running the country. With all the difficulties and all the problems, there were four years that proved that the national camp can manage and steer matters very well. I think that Yisrael Beiteinu played a large part in that management."
The friendship between Lieberman and Netanyahu may not be as close as that between Lieberman and Olmert - but politics has ways of its own. Lieberman was Netanyahu's partner in the move to advance the elections last May. Then he agreed to bring Kadima into the coalition. He went with Netanyahu to the United Nations and praised his red line "marker" speech. And he was a full behind-the-scenes partner in Netanyahu's considerations and decision to move up the elections now. No one should be surprised if he has a promise from Netanyahu to retain the foreign affairs portfolio in the next government, too.
Lieberman reads polls and understands polls. He understands that, in the game of the blocs, Netanyahu will be the next prime minister. That is why, in contrast to his non-committal behavior in the 2006 and 2009 elections, he has chosen to declare his intentions in advance. It stands to reason that he also declared them to Olmert in their meeting this week. And that is one more thing Olmert will have to take into account.