The Olmert Era

Prosecution witnesses who will take the stand one after another in the Jerusalem District Court beginning this week will hark us back to the Olmert era. Once a week, twice a week, then three times a week, until the trial is over. Affairs will blur together as testimony after testimony - the envelopes, the receipts, the invoices - pile up before the judges. Ehud Olmert will be back in the headlines.

Early last week he gave a speech to Tel Aviv University's Academic-Business Club that centered on the diplomatic legacy he bequeathed to Netanyahu in the form of the generous offer he made to Abu Mazen. In the speech, Olmert "casually" mentioned that he'd recently met former President George W. Bush and that they'd talked about these issues.

A few weeks ago, on the first anniversary of Bush's departure from the White House, he and his wife Laura hosted a couple of old friends at their Texas home for a wintry weekend by the fireplace: Ehud and Aliza Olmert. Without any photo sessions or formal statements, for these were just a bunch of ordinary citizens, two retirees and their wives spending some quality time together. The former prime minister's office declined to provide any information about the visit, but still it's a reminder of that not-so-distant time when cozy intimacy between Israeli and American leaders was a matter of routine. These days one could only dream about such a scene.

Bush and Olmert both left office with a whimper - having pursued controversial wars, mired in dreadfully low popularity ratings, their departures evoking big collective sighs of relief. Unlike Olmert, Bush is not entangled in any criminal proceedings. He has all the time in the world to devote to establishing his presidential library and writing an autobiography that will earn him millions of dollars.

Unlike Bush, who is barred by the U.S. constitution from seeking the presidency once again if he so desired, Olmert is keen to get a second chance. Like Netanyahu and Barak before him, he, too, is planning a comeback. Provided, of course, that he emerges unscathed from the trial whose evidentiary stage is due to begin Thursday.

"What's the point of talking about it? He's not the master of his fate, after all. For the next year or two, his fate is in the hands of the court system. That's what interests him now, and that's all he'll be dealing with," say Olmert's people. But Olmert has a neighbor in the hilly Jerusalem suburb of Motza, MK Roni Bar-On, who was once the finance minister in his government. Nowadays, they watch soccer together. I asked Bar-On: If Olmert is acquitted, will he seek to become prime minister again? "Absolutely," was his reply. "No question about it."

From now on we'll be hearing more from him. He'll give speeches, lectures, perhaps also consent to interviews. Not about the trial - that's prohibited - but about diplomatic issues. The offer to Abu Mazen - almost complete withdrawal to the 1967 borders, including East Jerusalem, with international administration of the "Holy Basin" - is, he believes, the only solution to the conflict (and others share this view). He tried to discuss it numerous times with Netanyahu, in private meetings, but his successor as prime minister did not want to hear about it. Now, having given up on Netanyahu, Olmert has decided to speak directly with the public, over the prime minister's head.

Any Knesset member from Kadima who wishes to meet with him is invited to visit his office. This includes Tzipi Livni and Shaul Mofaz (whom he is pressuring not to break up Kadima). If you ever want to run for prime minister, Olmert tells Mofaz, you'll only be able to do so from within an intact Kadima and not as head of a breakaway party. This is sound advice, which serves the interests of both the adviser and the advisee.

Mofaz wants to see a primary for the party leadership no later than the end of 2010. Livni is talking about mid-2012 at the earliest. These two couldn't even agree on the time of day. He continues to bring up her failure to form a government - twice - and the fact that Kadima almost fell apart on her watch a few weeks ago.

"Ideologically, too, most of the faction is with me," Mofaz says. "We've seen this in a few recent votes - for example, on the matter of tax benefits in the Golan Heights, most of the MKs voted with me.

"Anyway," he adds, "it's not just a personal issue. This week we read about the offer that Olmert made to Abu Mazen, to divide Jerusalem. We have a right to know whether she was a part of this move [as foreign minister, Livni conducted parallel talks with Abu Ala], or whether she was just wasting her time on a bogus track."

If you don't get what you want, will you break up Kadima?

"What kind of question is that? I don't want to break up Kadima," says Mofaz. "A compromise must be reached. She cannot cling to the party's constitution. This constitution wasn't written for her but for Ariel Sharon when he was prime minister. Responsibility for breaking up Kadima will fall upon her."

Are you seeking a decision this week, either way?

"No. Why should it be this week?"

Because you've indicated on other occasions that the end of February is more or less your target date.

"No. I want to reach a compromise. That's the way to run a party. That's the way to achieve peace on the home front."

So what are you after? What is your aim?

"My aim is to be elected head of Kadima."

Despite what Mofaz says here, some in Kadima say they've heard him say that if his position is not accepted within two weeks, he'll "break up the package." How many will join him? It's unclear whether the six reputed deserters still exist as a single bloc and are just waiting for his signal to create the group of seven that will allow them to break off from Kadima, under the so-called "Mofaz Law."

The expectation in Kadima is that Mofaz will seek to put together a faction of at least 10 MKs, thus compelling Netanyahu to appoint him as a senior minister. Finance minister or foreign minister, perhaps. This week, Lieberman and Mofaz met in the foreign minister's Knesset office. The meeting had been scheduled a month before. Ostensibly, both would like to see Livni fall. But Lieberman certainly has something to fear from a situation in which Mofaz brings 10 Kadima MKs with him into the coalition. That would afford Netanyahu a very convenient opportunity to rid himself of Yisrael Beiteinu and his problematic foreign minister.

At last week's faction meeting, Livni made her position clear: No primary until nine to 12 months prior to the next Knesset election. None of the MKs, including the six potential rebels, said a word. Mofaz is entitled to request a vote in the faction, which is the most senior forum in Kadima, on an earlier primary date.

"I made a decision," says Livni. "I have no desire to cause a split in Kadima, even though some feel that such a thing would only help us - Kadima would have less of a presence in the Knesset but would be more cohesive and whoever stayed would stay because they really believe in the party. I don't want to go in that direction, but I'm not prepared to pay any price just so the number two in the party can decide that if he doesn't get his way, he's splitting. Up to this week, I've showed restraint, I haven't descended to that level, but I decided to announce my position about the primary date to the faction. I won't call for a vote, but I won't prevent one if someone else requests it."

Let's say your position is accepted. Think of how the party looks: Whenever there is an ideological vote, you split into two camps with your camp usually in the minority.

"What ideological differences do we have? We're paying a public price not because of ideological differences but because of the focus on internal personal matters. Last week [in the vote on granting tax benefits to communities in the Golan Heights, a proposal submitted by Kadima faction member Eli Aflalo, with the encouragement of Likud - a golden opportunity to embarrass Livni], we paid a public price for internal nonsense. The attempt to put an ideological guise on opportunism won't wash with me."

What are the chances that next week Kadima will find itself in a crisis that will culminate in a split?

"It's not up to me. If someone wants a vote - be my guest. The MKs will decide. The question is what happens after that - will Kadima be focused on itself, on interpersonal squabbles, or on important matters?"

Mofaz wants a compromise. Why don't you try to find a compromise with him?

"Today's party constitution says that the primary for the party leadership will be held three months before the Knesset election. I agree that this period of time is too short, that our candidate for prime minister must be elected earlier in order to be creditable, and therefore I said that I was willing to extend this up to a year before the Knesset election. In the past, I proposed that we vote on this in the faction, and the one who didn't want this to happen was Shaul. Everything that's happening today is not my business, rather the result of festering resentment on the part of the person who ran against me in the previous round and lost, and is still having trouble accepting the outcome."

Are you aiming for peace or war?

"You remind me of Lieberman who, when he took over the Foreign Ministry, said that he who wants peace should prepare for war."

I think he said that in Latin, or Russian.

"Well, if we're dealing with Latin, then I prefer the expression: 'Veni, vidi, vici.' [I came, I saw, I conquered]"

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On December 25, 2009 I wrote on these pages about alleged contacts between Vice Prime Minister Silvan Shalom and opposition chairwoman Livni, aimed at affecting Prime Minister Netanyahu's standing. In response, Shalom clarified that he is not in continuous contact with Livni, and I accept that this is the state of affairs. In the same column I've had written that Shalom invited Livni as a guest of honor to the "Israel Latzeirim" ("Israel for the young") convention. After checking the facts again, it turns out that the prime minister, the defense minister and the state president were also invited, but did not show up, each for his own reason.