Olmert: From high life to low ebb

Barely a year passes without a senior minister begging Ehud Olmert, the Israeli Prime Minister, to go. Last year the Foreign Minister, Tzipi Livni, called on Olmert to step down after the interim report of the Winograd commission on the Lebanese War.

On Wednesday it was the turn of Defence Minister Ehud Barak.
After United States businessman Morris Talansky testified this week that he gave Olmert $150 000 in cash-stuffed envelopes over 15 years, Barak gave the prime minister four options: “suspension, vacation or resignation or declaring himself incapacitated”.

The two ministers, one from the ruling Kadima Party and the other from Labour, could be working in tandem. Barak’s strategy on Wednesday was to put the onus on Kadima to find itself a new leader. Barak could have pulled the plug on the government by resigning as Olmert’s senior coalition partner and forcing early elections. But he did no such thing; nor did he set a deadline for calling new elections.

He said Labour was not going to stand in front of Kadima with a stopwatch, but that “things have to happen soon”—though he did not specify when.

He threw down a gauntlet that Olmert does not have to pick up. Barak’s reason for trying to remove the prime minister without provoking a fresh round of elections is his fear of the alternative.

The victor of elections held now would be Likud’s leader, Benjamin Netanyahu, a man who was against Israel’s pull-out from Gaza, against talks with the Palestinian Authority, and who has advocated military action against both Syria and Iran. Under his leadership both the peace talks with the Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas, and the Turkish-mediated talks with Syria would be in serious jeopardy.

On the other hand, Olmert is seriously damaged goods. Even if he got a deal with Abbas or with Syria, he lacks the moral authority to force such deals through.

Would the portrait that Talansky painted of Olmert in court—the lover of luxury suites, fountain pens, fat cigars and first-class flights—be the man to expel hundreds of thousands of settlers from the West Bank and the Golan Heights? Olmert must be a believer in miracles. His lawyers told everyone on Wednesday to wait for the cross-examination in July. But already he has lost the trust of half of his own party.

Barak wants to provoke a Kadima putsch and, as Livni is the linchpin of the talks with Abbas, a Livni-Barak partnership would not jeopardise the Annapolis process. But he is playing a risky game. Unseating a weak centrist leader who is fond of the good life could come at a cost: a populist hardliner with a penchant for air strikes on Iran.—Â

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