Olmert's Moment

At 4 P.M. today, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert will stand before the Knesset plenum to officially open the winter session. It will be his sweetest moment in the past six months - an occasion for some satisfaction after the investigations and his resignation. The failure in the negotiations for the formation of a new government leaves Olmert in his seat at least until spring. Until then he will be immune from being ousted and will conduct himself in a statesmanlike way in comparison to his rivals, Tzipi Livni, Ehud Barak and Benjamin Netanyahu, who will rip each other to shreds during the election campaign.

How fun it will be for Olmert to watch Livni in the foreign minister's seat rather than in his own, and to see that Barak is still defense minister and not "the senior deputy prime minister, who's more important than any other minister."

Over the last few weeks as Livni tried to form a coalition, Olmert kept a low profile and prepared for the transfer of power. He summarized his political legacy in a farewell interview in which he called for withdrawal from the territories. He refrained from renewing talks with Syria, and his meeting with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas was put off. A meager agenda was set for yesterday's cabinet meeting, and the security cabinet was not convened this week.

Now Olmert plans to slowly begin his return to active leadership. His speech in the Knesset today is slated to focus on the financial and social situation, and on the country's preparedness for dealing with the global financial crisis - and won't include explosive political announcements. His stated position is that it is possible to reach agreements with the Palestinians and Syrians in a short time, but before he makes any more of an effort to do so, the prime minister plans to assess what is possible to achieve and how much room he has in which to maneuver.

The next scheduled event on the Israeli-Palestinian timetable is the Sharm el-Sheikh conference in November. If Livni represents Israel as foreign minister, moderate statements would boost her international standing, but pose a problem with right-wing voters, while a tough stance would disappoint Arab countries and the United States.

But, then, the United States, or at least its secretary of state, is liable to be disappointed in any case: Condoleezza Rice, it is assumed, wants Livni as prime minister, but even if she wins the election, Rice will already be out of office. So Rice will just have to face Olmert yet again.