Ehud Olmert, who resigned in disgrace as prime minister in 2008 to face corruption charges, is now being seen by some in Israel as the “great white hope” of the center-left to defeat Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in next year’s election.
After recently being cleared of the most serious of several bribery charges that compelled his resignation, Olmert is being quoted by several sources as seriously considering reentering the political arena.
“He is the only one who can put together a coalition with the haredim [ultra-Orthodox],” observed Shmuel Sandler, a political science professor at Bar-Ilan University.
Sandler pointed out that unlike in the past, the major parties in Israel today receive no more than 25 or 30 votes and need to form coalitions in order to govern.
“Netanyahu has a very strong coalition, that is why the left and center are looking for a way to break it — and to Olmert to save them,” he said.
He pointed out that Aryeh Deri, the former head of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, “is a good friend of Olmert’s” who might be able to persuade the party to bolt Netanyahu’s coalition and join with an Olmert coalition.
“He did just that in 1990,” Sandler said.
Word that Olmert is considering a political comeback surfaced Wednesday, one day after Netanyahu announced that his coalition partners were unable to adopt a “responsible budget” with deep cuts.
Sandler, who said he would advise Olmert not to run, said there is speculation that Olmert might form a new party with Tzipi Livni, the former head of the Kadima Party who served as his foreign minister.
Gerald Steinberg, another political science professor at Bar-Ilan University, said he believes Olmert will run, but that his candidacy “is not going to have a significant impact or get much backing. He is not going to get support from [Netanyahu’s] Likud and the Kadima party is falling apart.”
Haim Ramon, a former cabinet minister and close friend of Olmert, told Army Radio that he has been speaking with Olmert about heading a new centrist party he is seeking to form.
“He has obviously not made his decisions, and we need to wait patiently,” he said.
Steinberg said that should Olmert and Ramon form a new party, “it would be seen as a party of convicts — people who did not take their public duties seriously.”
Ramon, a former justice minister, was convicted in 2009 of sexual misconduct for kissing a young Israeli soldier against her will. Ramon, who at the time was 56 and divorced, insisted that the 21-year-old woman flirted with him and that the kiss was consensual.
Olmert was cleared by a court in July of accepting cash from an American political supporter, Morris Talansky, and allegedly double-billing for overseas trips. He was convicted on a lesser charge of breach of trust for steering government contracts to a friend’s associates. He still faces trial in connection with a Jerusalem real estate bribery case.
Sandler suggested that Olmert might be flirting with a political comeback to deter the prosecutor from proceeding with the pending case.
“He may be [sending a signal] that he resigned because of Talansky and he came away clean from that case, so the courts better not dare to punish him in a case involving another problematic witness,” he explained.
But Avraham Diskin, a professor of political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, said Olmert would be making a big mistake if he ran while criminal charges were pending.
“In order for Olmert to participate in the election, there are two conditions that must be met,” he said. “One is that there is a large, serious group behind him. Second is that he is confident there is no chance he will be convicted in any of the legal proceedings that didn’t end.”
Diskin noted that Olmert received a “lenient sentence” on the lesser charge of which he was convicted, but that an appeal is pending regarding the major charges.
“So those cases are not over yet,” he said. “And there is a pending criminal cases. It would be stupid for him to participate in this race because of that, and I don’t think he will.”