An Olmert Comeback: The Center-left Cursed by a Blessing

Though the former prime minister has long been touted as the great white hope of the center-left, too many undecided factors blight his potential return.

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

From the moment Benjamin Netanyahu announced early elections last month, the political establishment has been bracing itself for the seismic event of former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's return to the fray. Every hint coming from him or his aides has been dissected while he travelled to Britain and the United States, holding quiet meetings (with potential donors?) and public lectures, in which he caused a stir by criticizing Netanyahu and his supporter, the American multimillionaire Sheldon Adelson, for jeopardizing Israel-U.S. relations. And tonight (or tomorrow, depending where you get your news) he is finally scheduled to return home and later this week announce his intentions. On Monday, even America's prophet of economic doom, Nouriel Roubini, joined the chorus of speculation when he tweetedthat "Ehud Olmert, former Israeli PM, likely to announce tomorrow that he's running again to lead Israel. He spoke last nite [sic] in a NY private event."

Click here for Anshel Pfeffer's 2013 election blog

There is a great deal of conflicting reports of what form his comeback, if it occurs, will take. Will he resume leadership of Kadima, more than four years after an investigation into his personal finances forced him to resign? Some sources have maintained that current leader Shaul Mofaz is prepared to stand aside while others insist that having finally won the leadership, there is no chance Mofaz will relinquish the position.

The right-wing newspaper Makor Rishon reported on Tuesday that Olmert has been telling Kadima MKs not to resign because he will "need them." This may indicate that he is planning to try and breathe life back into the party that is currently brushing the electoral threshold in polls.

According to other reports, Olmert is set on founding yet another centrist party, in addition to the four that already jostle in the middle-ground. According to polls he commissioned, such a party could win at least ten Knesset seats. Maariv (which also mentioned his talks with Kadima MKs) reported on Tuesday that Olmert has already been in contact with his once education minister, former Labor MK Yuli Tamir, as a potential star candidate in his new party.

Tamir's possible inclusion leads to the question of the return of another prominent female politician – Tzipi Livni, who has been playing with the media the same guessing game, regarding her intentions, as her predecessor as Kadima leader, Olmert. Since she lost to Mofaz in the leadership primaries in March, Livni has burnt her bridges with Kadima but has constantly kept alive the possibility of leading a new party herself. On Tuesday, Haaretz revealed that Livni had recently told her associates that she would allow Olmert to announce his decision first but, if he decides to return, she would prefer to remain on the sidelines rather than serve as his deputy.

While many in the center and on the left dream of an Olmert comeback, believing that he is capable of both attracting a large number of "anti-Netanyahu" votes and of breaking the right-wing-religious coalition after the elections through an alliance with his old friend Aryeh Deri, back now at Shas' helm, a number of major questions still remain:

  • 1. Olmert may have been acquitted earlier this year of the two main charges in his corruption trial but he was still convicted of breach of trust. The State Prosecution appealed last week against the Jerusalem District Court's ruling on all three counts. Furthermore, he is still the main defendant in the unrelated "Holyland" corruption case, where he is charged with accepting over five million shekels in return for speeding excessive building permits. Weighed down by these legal burdens, can he really be considered a viable candidate? Even if he were to succeed in forming a coalition and returning to the Prime Minister's Office, he may soon be forced to resign again.
  • 2. The center field is already too crowded and none of the current parties are going to make way for Olmert (if he does run at the head of a new party). Instead of unifying the camp, he will only split it further, making the chances of a challenge to Netanyahu or of forming a significant opposition following the elections even slimmer.
  • 3. If Livni is serious about sitting out the elections should Olmert decide to run, a major doubt will be case on his leadership. Otherwise, why is not prepared to trust him again? Her presence lurking in the background will be a continuous threat.
  • 4. Olmert was one of the founders of Kadima along with Ariel Sharon in 2005. Running against the party now would effectively ensure its demise but those going down with the ship won't hesitate to air his dirty linen in public.
  • 5. Olmert has close ties with another centrist party, Yesh Atid. He is party leader Yair Lapid's life-long family friend and over the past two years has been also his political mentor. An Olmert party will compete for the same voters – and Lapid is unlikely to remain silent as his mentor threatens his chances of becoming a power-broker in the next Knesset.

Taking all these factors into account, an Olmert comeback seems hugely unreasonable. On the other hand, he has broken so many alliances in nearly fifty years in politics and made the journey from a far-right leader who cemented Likud's pact with the Haredi parties to the great white hope of the secular left. A politician without shame or scruples, he is capable of anything.

Ehud Olmert speaking at a conference in New York, April 29, 2012.Credit: Mark Israel Salem
Flanked by security, former Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert waves as he leaves the Jerusalem district court on July 10, 2012.Credit: AFP
Ehud OlmertCredit: Amos Biderman

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