As He Heads to Washington, Olmert Prepares His Comeback

On farewell trip, the PM will seek U.S. promise about F-22 jets and discuss Jonathan Pollard's release.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has been dealing with affairs of state, calling meetings, releasing statements and keeping his distance from the election campaign. He is acting like the president, who is above politics. But make no mistake: Olmert is preparing for a comeback. He is trying to figure out how to return to power in the future, once he extricates himself from his police investigations.

That may sound strange, given his deep unpopularity and the six investigations against him. But those who meet with him say his mood is excellent: He believes that the probes will come to nothing, and that once his name is cleared, he will be able to return to the premiership.

It is difficult to know what goes on between Olmert and his investigators, or what may yet be uncovered against him. The leaks from law enforcement agencies saying an indictment is near have so far come to nothing. Even in the most serious case, the Rishon Tours double-billing affair, it is unclear whether police will be able to implicate Olmert conclusively.

If Olmert really hopes to return to power, that would explain his recent statements about the need for Israel to leave the territories. He is trying to create a narrative: He was a courageous premier who went further than his predecessors toward a historic compromise with the Palestinians and Syria. If he had stayed in office, he would have achieved peace on both fronts. But he was booted out of office due to dirty tricks by the police, prosecutors and plotting politicians.

Olmert sees that Benjamin Netanyahu is now poised to win the election and replace him as prime minister. Yet Netanyahu was also humiliated and dismissed; he, too, faced investigations that were closed without charges. If he can do it, why not Olmert?

Those in the prime minister's inner circle deny the rumors claiming that Olmert views Netanyahu as the most experienced and suitable person to replace him. Olmert insists that he supports Tzipi Livni, and that Netanyahu's plan to shelve diplomatic negotiations in favor of an "economic peace" will complicate things with the American administration and the international community. Moreover, Olmert views Netanyahu as indirectly responsible for Israel Hayom, a newspaper owned by Netanyahu's good friend and supporter, Sheldon Adelson, which presented Olmert as corrupt and unworthy to lead.

Olmert begins his farewell visit to Washington Sunday. On Monday he will dine with President George Bush at the White House. The agenda is meager, according to pre-visit briefings: Olmert will try to anchor diplomatic understandings attained with the Bush administration as part of the "transition file" to be given to Obama. The two will discuss Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas' possible resignation on January 9, four years after taking office. Olmert will also seek a promise for the F-22, the best plane in the world, and raise the issue of releasing Jonathan Pollard, who was sentenced to life for spying for Israel.