Olmert Agrees to Primaries; Kadima Seeks Early Vote

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert will not try to block primaries from taking place in his party, Kadima, he said yesterday. However, Olmert is asking that internal moves toward primaries not begin until he returns from his visit to the United States next weekend. However, Olmert may ask for the pause to be extended until his defense lawyers have an opportunity to cross-examine Morris Talansky, a chief witness for the prosecution in the corruption probe of the PM if this could be scheduled in about 10 days.

"I am not going to fight this [primaries]. They want primaries? Let there be primaries," Olmert said during the weekend in talks with aides and officials in Kadima. "This movement is dear to me. I do not intend to draw it into my legal issues, and I will never do anything to harm it."

Olmert and his defense team believe that the cross-examination of Talansky will defuse some of the allegations against him that sprang from the deposition the American businessman gave last week. Cross-examination will present the prime minister in a more positive light, say his lawyers. Sources close to Olmert say that if the cross-examination shows Talansky to be a less than reliable witness, this will bolster the prime minister in the eyes of the public and in Kadima, and he will be in better position to deal with the demand for primaries.

"If Talansky emerges as a liar," said a source close to Olmert, "this will make [Ehud] Barak look ridiculous, as someone who rushed to create a crisis. Why was he not able to wait for an indictment? Tzipi Livni, too, rushed to stick a knife into the prime minister after Barak, and will also look bad. This can negatively affect her image among Kadima constituents."

Nonetheless, sources close to the PM said yesterday that he is unlikely to participate in the primaries if these are held, even though Olmert had not specifically said so.

However, it is clear that Olmert would like to conduct this fight in the public, not in the political arenas, and he is therefore trying to forestall any internal party procedure such as primaries before the cross-examination of Talansky, which he expects will contain the damage to his image.

Olmert met on Thursday with Minister of Transportation Shaul Mofaz, who asked the PM to agree to early primaries in the party.

MK Tzachi Hanegbi, a senior figure in Kadima who is close to Olmert met with him, and it was agreed that the party's central committee would meet following Olmert's visit to Washington to discuss the primaries.

Meanwhile, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni said primaries should be held as soon as possible, even if Olmert opposes this development. "There is a limit to everything. There is a party and there is a state," she said, suggesting that there are more important things than Olmert's personal affairs.

Vice Premier Haim Ramon, a close ally of Olmert, said yesterday at a conference in Washington that elections in Israel are likely to be held by November.