Following Court's Ruling, Is Olmert Back on the Political Horse?

Although his reputation has been burned by corruption controversies and poorly handled military operations, Ehud Olmert believes he has unfinished business on the world stage.

The day after the court verdicts were announced, Ehud Olmert left his home in Motza, on the outskirts of Jerusalem. The former prime minister, his driver and a bodyguard got into the black Audi and started their journey. Hours later, a white Honda Accord stopped near an office building in central Tel Aviv, where the former premier keeps an office. Olmert and his guard got out and made their way into the building.

This wasn't a subterfuge. Once every two or three weeks, the impressive-looking government Audi - whose engine has seen better days - breaks down and Olmert is forced to wait for a replacement vehicle from a government parking lot. But on Wednesday even this nuisance did not wipe the smile off Olmert's face.

He felt like someone who has gotten his life back. Had he been convicted on the fraud counts involved in the Rishon Tours and Talansky affairs, he would have found himself behind bars. The conviction handed to him on breach of trust counts is not expected to generate a prison sentence. The judges' definition of his actions as being "procedurally incorrect" will apparently help him avoid being tarred with the brush of moral turpitude.

Should state prosecutors not appeal the acquittals, and should he avoid conviction on bribery charges in the Holyland real estate affair (such a conviction would incur a prison sentence), Olmert's path would be cleared for a return to politics.

Since leaving his post as prime minister four years ago, he never disavowed politics. When he is not busy making a living either here or overseas, he meets with MKs, ministers and other politicians. Politicians from many parties know that his door is always open. He has held meetings with top Israel Defense Forces officers, and top Shin Bet security service and Mossad people.

When he visits the United States, he holds meetings with a long list of top officials from the White House and the previous Bush administration; he also meets with journalists and members of various think tanks. Generally, he remains in contact with leaders from around the world.

During the week preceding the verdict, Olmert met with various elements and assessed that he would be acquitted on most counts, but convicted on the breach of trust indictment. When asked about his plans, he replied that he would vie for the prime ministerial post on behalf of the centrist constituency, since "nobody else can do that right now, neither [Shaul] Mofaz nor [Yair] Lapid."

Pressed about Lapid, Olmert avowed confidently that the new political candidate will forgo his status as head of a new, independent party (Yesh Atid - meaning "there is a future"), and will join ranks with him. Olmert's office refused to address this issue. Also Lapid, via his spokesperson Nili Reichman, chose not to comment.

Looking for love

Many months will go by before it is clarified whether Olmert can legally attempt a political comeback in the next elections. Even if he receives a legal green light, what would be his chances of breathing life into the center-left part of the political arena?

The diplomatic plan he submitted to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas before he was forced to step down as prime minister in 2008 was (in Olmert's own view, and in the view of many others) more daring and creative than any previous peace proposal. With such a political reincarnation, will Olmert be able to break the logjam in Israeli politics, and overturn the Likud government? That doesn't seem feasible - not for the time being, at least.

During his tenure, Olmert delivered a rather well-memorized address, confessing that he was "not a popular prime minister." The Second Lebanon War, which erupted a few months after he was elected in April 2006, devastated his standing with the public. His popularity level in polls plummeted. After the war, various investigations into real estate dealings and bank connections began. In August 2006, some were predicting that Olmert would have to resign imminently due to the controversy over the home he bought on Jerusalem's Cremieux Street; three years later, though, that case was closed.

People who met with Olmert in the wake of Tuesday's verdicts identified a burgeoning desire to return to the top job ("There's nothing he wants more in life," one of his associates said). They also noted that he yearns to become popular again.

Not everyone remembers those days, but once upon a time Olmert actually was popular. Those high points came at different junctures: during his first months as acting premier, after Ariel Sharon collapsed at the start of 2006; after he was elected Kadima chairman; and in May 2006, during his visit to Washington under the Bush administration when he delivered an impressive speech to both houses of Congress. More than anything, Olmert wants to return to those days. In the final analysis, like anyone else, and despite his stern veneer, Olmert needs to be loved.

Looking for commitment

As these lines were written yesterday, Vice Prime Minister Shaul Mofaz was preparing for another meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. This could be the moment of truth for Kadima, as a member of the government coalition. Or it could be just another meeting. As things looked this week, Mofaz wants to cover all the bases so he can approach his electorate and proclaim that he acted in good faith - both when he joined the government and when he quit it.

During a meeting of the then-ruling Mapai party in 1965, Prime Minister Levi Eshkol took the rostrum and shouted at his rival, David Ben-Gurion, "Give me some credit!" That is what Mofaz needs now. Mofaz and his confederates find it hard to fathom why the public is not more receptive to him, after he staked his entire political career on the effort to equalize burdens of army service in Israel.

The hard data warrant their frustration: A Haaretz opinion poll conducted this week to mark the one-year anniversary since the eruption of the social protest movement, and ahead of what promises to be a wave of protests about IDF draft policy revisions, asked respondents about the extent to which politicians are committed to bringing about social change. The Dialog-Haaretz survey, supervised by Tel Aviv University's Prof. Camil Fuchs, asked respondents to grade politicians as being "very committed" or "committed" to the social protest movement. Following are the percentages of respondents who characterized various politicians in such terms:

The following proportion of respondents characterized various politicians as being committed to equalizing the IDF-service burden:

In both categories, Mofaz ranks last. Yair Lapid, who remains outside of the political-parliamentarian framework and has yet to make a substantive contribution and not taken any political risks, takes second place. Politics is a cruel world. Even Shelly Yacimovich, who describes the current controversies about conscripting the ultra-Orthodox as merely "spin," beats Mofaz in this poll.

The survey points to a substantive decline in levels of satisfaction with Benjamin Netanyahu's performance: Forty-one percent of respondents are happy with him, whereas 51 percent are dissatisfied. Last May, the figures were much more flattering to Netanyahu (46%-45%). The reason for this decline is clear: his inconsistent handling of the IDF conscription issue.

Lapid's new party, Yesh Atid, would be the second largest were elections to be held today: The survey gives it 16 MKs, as compared to Likud's 29 MKs. Labor, according to the survey, would have 14 MKs (a steep decline from the 19 MKs projected by a poll two months ago, before Yacimovich became ill and her party lost some strength).

The survey reflects a harsh irony: The two politicians who took chances and engaged efforts to legislate a draft bill, Netanyahu and Mofaz, have lost political traction. This slippage, however, does not endanger Netanyahu's government. The bloc comprised by Likud, smaller right-wing parties and the Orthodox parties has 67 MKs in the poll. The center-left bloc has 53 mandates, including the 10 MKs who belong to the three Arab parties. Were elections to be held today, Netanyahu would have no trouble cobbling together a coalition. Whatever happens, the Haredim will come crawling to him.

Looking for trouble

On Tuesday, close to midnight, MK Yohanan Plesner (Kadima) received a telephone call from Vice Prime Minister Moshe Ya'alon (Likud), his associate on the panel that recently formulated the proposed new IDF conscription law. Plesner says Ya'alon indicated that he had just finished a long meeting with Netanyahu. Ya'alon, Plesner explains, began to sing a tune that sounds like a retraction of previous agreements on the issue.

Plesner phoned Mofaz, but the Kadima leader had already gone to sleep. As Plesner tells it, 95 percent of the issues were worked out in his discussions with Ya'alon. One lingering problem was the criminal repercussions of shirking obligations under the new draft law. During the Tuesday night discussion, Ya'alon told Plesner that Netanyahu does not believe that "in the Jewish state," a yeshiva student should go to prison for studying Torah. Not in the Jewish state!

"Even if I were to agree to exempting Haredi draft-shirkers from prison sentences, the legal counsel who has worked with our committee could not concur, because such an exemption is at variance with High Court rulings," says Plesner.

On Wednesday, the Plesner-Ya'alon committee effectively disbanded. Officials from the justice and finance ministries, and from the IDF and the Prime Minister's Office, ended their work on the committee. Kadima party members phoned the head of the students' union, Itzhik Shmuli, and briefed him about developments.

"This is not acceptable to me," Shmuli said. "If that's the bottom line, I'll oppose you," he vowed.

Kadima members briefed Mofaz. He staged a party meeting, and secured a decision vesting him with the authority to enforce Kadima's resignation from the coalition, should he decide to pursue that option. With this new writ of authority in his pocket, Mofaz went to meet Netanyahu on Wednesday evening. He knew that if he failed to stand strong, Netanyahu would outmaneuver him.

Since Tuesday morning, Mofaz has been hearing about Ehud Olmert's impending return to Kadima's top spot, and about Olmert considering the creation of a new center-left coalition. Such speculation casts Mofaz in the role of pretender. This turn of the screw changed the terms of the debate about the IDF draft law - ostensibly, the debate is about the conscription of ultra-Orthodox men, but Olmert's shadow now follows Mofaz wherever he goes on this issue.

"The minute it became clear that we're not discussing actual results and a reasonable compromise, but are instead squabbling about who gains political capital, Netanyahu brought things to an end," a close associate of the prime minister claimed yesterday morning. "Netanyahu concluded that Plesner and Mofaz are adopting extremist positions. They are looking for political capital, and an image of victory - the withdrawal of the Haredim from the coalition. Should the ultra-Orthodox pack their bags and leave the government, while hurling accusations against Netanyahu, nobody in the public will pay attention to the details of the draft law. The widespread understanding will be that Kadima brought about a historical achievement, one which forced the Haredim out of the government. In addition, ministerial portfolios will become available for Kadima members who sit impatiently outside Mofaz's office, waiting their turn. Netanyahu doesn't like this scenario."

I asked this source to clarify what really troubles the premier.

"Here's an example," the associate said. "Plesner wants to stipulate an 80 percent draft quota for the Haredim. Where does this 80 percent figure come from? Do 80 percent of secular Israelis join the army? Netanyahu knows that if he embraces this extreme proposal, it would cause a deep crisis between Likud and the Haredim."

Looking for votes

Israeli governments start to discuss the state budget in mid-July, or early August at the latest. We are now in mid-July, and nothing is happening. The government's initial discussion of the budget is set for September. The Prime Minister's Office has, up to now, staged just one orderly discussion about the budget. There are two possible reasons at play here. Netanyahu possibly wants to complete work on the IDF draft bill before turning to the budget. Or, more plausibly, he knows that no new draft law will be legislated here, and so he will have to call for early elections. And if he is compelled to head to the ballot box, apparently in early 2013, why deal with the budget right now?

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