Ehud Olmert bowed to the inevitable yesterday and resigned as Israeli prime minister effective September 17th, the date of the next Kadima party leadership primary. Beset on all sides by up to six separate corruption investigations, the most serious of which involved accepting several hundred thousand dollars in cash and gifts from U.S. businessman Moshe Talansky, Olmert realized that his continued leadership was untenable. In addition, he had little political credibility or traction with the nation because of both his ethical lapses and his failed prosecution of the 2006 war in Lebanon.
There were several options that Olmert could have chosen in resigning and the one he picked will send the Kadima party into a flurry of political jockeying before the primary elections. The leading candidate is centrist foreign minister Tzipi Livni, who has made a name for herself as a political pragmatist, though she comes from a prominent rightist political family. She pointedly departed from Olmert during the Lebanon war and refused to participate in promoting or defending it, a surprisingly independent move for a sitting foreign minister. Her chief challenger is transportation minister, former IDF commander in chief and hawk Shaul Mofaz. It was Mofaz who single-handedly caused a multi-billion dollar rise in the international price of oil a few weeks ago, with his statement that Israel faced no choice but to attack Iranian nuclear installations. The latest polls (which are inherently unstable in Israeli politics) show Livni with a significant but falling lead over Mofaz.
The political instability Olmert caused with his resignation portends well for the possible political comeback of perennial prime minister candidate Bibi Netanyahu, leader of the rightist Likud opposition. Should the Kadmina-led coalition falter, Netanyahu eagerly waits in the wings for his second opportunity to lead the nation. His first prime ministership was marked by a hardline approach to the Israeli-Arab conflict and an unwillingness to negotiate over major issues dividing the parties. He also has a reputation as a fiscal hawk willing to restrain spending on Israel’s safety net for its large population of poor, unemployed and ultra-Orthodox Jews. When he served as finance minister his policies were known for fiscally punishing the most vulnerable of Israel’s citizens. Current polls show that if a new election were held now Netanyahu would become prime minister.
Naturally, this is something Kadima and its junior coalition partner, Labor, seek to prevent at all costs. But the current government is a fragile reed including multiple parties each with its own separate social and political agenda. It remains to be seen whether the new party leader can hold together these disparate elements.
The biggest casualty in Olmert’s downfall may be his various peace initiatives initiated as his political career entered its most unstable phase. He began third party peace talks with Syria brokered by Turkey several months ago. With great willingness by both sides to compromise, it appeared that such talks might bear fruit in a relatively short period of time. More complicated and less productive have been U.S.-mediated talks with Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas.
If there are national elections and Netanyahu wins, each of these negotiating tracks may fall victim to his assumption of the reins of power. He is known as a deep skeptic regarding the possibility of peace with the Arabs and as a booster of military power as the key to national security.
Olmert’s downfall marks the end of the career of one of Israel’s veteran political operatives whose own career began in the early 1970s. He helped end the career of beloved long-time Labor party Jerusalem mayor Teddy Kollek and used the mayoral perch to launch himself into national political leadership. After joining the Knesset, he became Ariel Sharon’s chief political aide and enforcer. When Sharon wanted to lower the boom on then Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, it was Olmert who told the Jerusalem Post that Israel was prepared to assassinate him. A later report by a journalist-confidant of Sharon’s published in Haaretz, claimed that Sharon, and Israeli intelligence, had indeed been responsible for Arafat’s death.
Olmert was known throughout his career as a wily, but pragmatic political survivor willing to compromise his rightist principles for either his own advancement or achieving political goals. His supporters and critics, for example, could never tell whether his recent peace initiatives toward Syria and the Palestinians were the product of principle or an attempt to save his prime ministership. For this reason, he leaves a mixed legacy of a man who seemed to have some vision of compromise with Israel’s enemies, but who allowed his penchant for the good life to interfere with, and ultimately topple him.