Will Olmert Return to Politics?

Jerusalem district court decision will reverberate not only through Israel, but through Washington, Ramallah, and around the world.

ברק רביד - צרובה
Barak Ravid
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ברק רביד - צרובה
Barak Ravid

The dramatic decision of the Jerusalem District Court on Tuesday morning to acquit former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert of charges pertaining to the Rishon Tours and Talansky affairs, will shock not only Israeli law enforcement, but will also send shockwaves through Israeli politics and the international arena.

In terms of Israeli law enforcement, it’s the State Prosecutor’s office that will suffer a tough blow. The two cases of which Olmert was acquitted were State Prosecutor Moshe Lador’s flagship cases, defining his time in power. The district court ruling will force Lador personally, and the State Prosecutor’s office as a whole, to comprehensively rethink their actions and do some soul searching.

What is clear is that Lador, as an official at the top of the system for the last few years, cannot be the one to lead that soul searching. Public faith in him and the organization he runs have been critically injured. The first step in amending the system is for Lador to personally assume responsibility and step down.

In terms of the political ramifications, there is no doubt that Israeli politicians are squirming in their chairs – first and foremost – Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The Prime Minister has been complacent in recent years, because of the feeling that there is no viable alternative for his government from within the political or public sectors. Now, Netanyahu will have to change his working assumption.

From the moment he stepped down as Prime Minister because of the Talansky affair, Olmert was convinced he’d be acquitted. He refused to reach a plea bargain, and fought for his innocence. Olmert fought a war not only for his personal future, but for his political future as well. At no point over the last few years did Olmert give up his resolve to return to politics and run for prime minster.

Olmert’s associates are claiming that the Holyland case will also end in acquittal, and that the conviction for breach of trust pertaining to the Investments Center affair will not amount to much. According to them, Olmert’s path of return to politics has been paved by acquittal of all charges pertaining to the Talansky and Rishon Tours affairs. The only questions remaining are what will Olmert decide, and if he is ready to return to the political arena soon. If the answers are positive, Olmert, more than anyone else, can position himself as a viable alternative to Netanyahu.

Olmert’s return to politics will not require long, drawn out preparations. Even after he stepped down as prime minister, he never really left politics. His closest advisors and loyal followers from the Prime Minister’s Office are still working with him on his private affairs, he has stayed in regular contact with senior officials from almost every party in the Knesset, and he continues to hold telephone conversations with ambassadors and other foreign leaders.

Olmert has political allies and personal friends in the Labor party, in Yisrael Beiteinu, Shas, the Likud, and of course, Kadima. Olmert is a close associate of Yesh Atid party leader Yair Lapid as well. A political alliance between them is not farfetched. Olmert is also close to Haim Ramon, who declared that he would found a centrist political party.

All of Kadima’s senior members are Olmert loyalists – Roni Bar-On, Tzahi Hanegbi, Dalia Itzik, Yoel Hasson, Ruhama Avraham Balil, and others. If Olmert wants to return to the top of the party – he won’t have a hard time displacing Shaul Mofaz, who was quick to release a message congratulating Olmert on his acquittal, but didn’t call on him to return to politics.

A few days after the initial investiagations into Olmert and the Talansky affair, he met in Jerusalem with then United States Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Rice made a note in her memoirs of how surprised she was after hearing Olmert’s unprecedented plan for a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

In addition to Rice and former President George W. Bush, many world leaders were very familiar with the proposal Olmert made to Mahmoud Abbas. To this day, Abbas has not responded to that proposal. Many of those leaders believe the proposal could have been enough to bring about a historic peace deal. For this reason, the Jerusalem District Court decision will reverberate not just through Israel, but through Washington, and Ramallah, and the capitals of Europe.

Over the last few years, Olmert has also claimed he was close to a diplomatic breakthrough with the Palestinians, and also possibly with Syria. Olmert claims that the indictments issued against him are what thwarted at least one of the possible peace deals. It is uncertain that Olmert’s optimistic predictions could have been realized. However, there is no doubt that the diplomatic initiatives he led during his term provided Israel with an unprecedented amount of international legitimacy – the same legitimacy that allowed Israel to go to war in Lebanon and Gaza, with wall to wall support from western powers.

Flanked by security, former Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert waves as he leaves the Jerusalem district court on July 10, 2012.Credit: AFP



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