Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert bowed to party pressure Wednesday and said he would allow his Kadima Party to select a new party leader. But it was not immediately clear that he would step aside and allow the winner to assume the premiership.
“There are different forces pushing Olmert to give the green light to the primaries,” said Yarom Meital, chairman of the Department of Middle East Studies at Ben-Gurion University in the Negev. “This is a significant shift in the stand of the prime minister from just two weeks ago, when he resisted any change in the political leadership of the Kadima Party.”
The reason for the shift, Meital said, is that Olmert understands that there are “expectations in the Israeli public for significant change.” He said Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who also heads the Labor Party, had said last month that the cabinet and the prime minister “could not continue beyond a couple of weeks.”
Olmert has asked that party leaders wait until July 17 when his lawyers have a chance to cross-examine Rabbi Morris Talansky, the Long Island businessman who testified at a pre-trial hearing that he gave Olmert envelopes stuffed with more than $150,000 in cash over a 13-year period.
Olmert has insisted that the money was nothing more than legitimate campaign donations made in the years before he became prime minister.
Tzahi Hanegbi, the head of Kadima’s steering committee, was quoted Wednesday as saying that he did not expect the primary to be held before July 17.
Among those pressing Olmert to consent to a party primary was Avi Dichter, the public security minister, who released a statement last week saying that he believed a primary election should be held no later than the beginning of September and that the date should be set by July. Foreign Minister Tzippi Livni had also called for a primary.
But opposition leaders saw the move as no more than a delaying tactic. Yuval Steinitz of the Likud Party was quoted as saying: “It is another stinking maneuver intended to avoid elections and stick to his seat while telling citizens and the state to go to hell.”
Even after primary elections, the question remained whether Olmert would immediately step aside.
“I doubt the constitution of the Kadima Party demands he step aside,” said Asher Arian, a political science professor at the University of Haifa. “It simply says to select the next person who would head the list, so [Olmert] does not have to automatically step aside. And the question of when there will be an election is still open. And nobody is talking earlier than November because of the holidays.”
Arian said that because the election in the United States is also in November, he believes the Israeli election will be delayed until late next year or early 2010. And he said he would not rule out Olmert remaining as prime minister.
“Look at all the obstacles he has overcome” since becoming prime minister. “This one while difficult doesn’t appear to be the hardest.”
No charges have been filed in the Olmert corruption case, but the scandal swirling around him for the last month is clearly having an affect. Last week, it was announced that Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper has postponed his trip to the Middle East scheduled for June 16-20 because of the probe.
“There’s considerable instability there now,” Norman Spector, a former Canadian ambassador to Israel, was quoted as saying. “The latest revelations about Mr. Olmert are extremely damaging and, as I understand it, public opinion is extremely negative towards Mr. Olmert. … The prime minister has no business being there when his counterpart is two steps away from the gallows.”
Meital noted that last weekend’s opinion polls showed that 60-70 percent of Israel “say enough is enough” and want Olmert removed as prime minister.
Meanwhile, members of the Likud opposition party were trying to line up support in the Knesset for a vote to topple the government as early as next week.
A poll published last week in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz found that if elections were held today, Likud Party leader Benjamin Netanyahu would win handily. Livni would come in second and Barak third.
Meital said he is not so sure the Knesset will pull the rug out from under the government so quickly.
“I would not be surprised if it takes longer than one effort by Likud,” he said. “You also have to remember the members of the Labor Party who do not want to see elections today and would like to see the coalition government continue with a replacement for Olmert.”
Barak said his threat to withdraw Labor’s support from the coalition would only be realized if Kadima did not install a replacement for Olmert as prime minister.
Gerald Steinberg, a professor of political science at Bar-Ilan University, said that unless the prosecutor moves to indict Olmert, “it is very unlikely the government will fall this summer.”
“It is hard to imagine Shas [Party] voting to go to new elections,” he said, noting that it has stayed in the government to push for the restoration of child benefits.
“If it does leave the government and uses [the failure to restore the benefits] as an excuse for leaving, it will appeal to voters,” Steinberg said. “Otherwise, there will be a paper compromise that would allow it to stay in the government for another six months.”
Kadima Party polls put Livni ahead of her nearest rival for party leader, Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz. She had the support of 39 percent of the party and Mofaz had the support of 25 percent.
Mofaz has attempted to present himself as the hard-line right-wing candidate of his party. He went to the Golan Heights last week and declared that as prime minister he would refuse to give back the Golan Heights to Syria, a position at odds with Olmert. Israeli-Syrian talks are being mediating by Turkey and another round is reportedly scheduled to be held next week. And he also raised eyebrows last week by saying sanctions against Iran to compel it to halt its quest for nuclear weapons had failed and that an Israeli military attack was “unavoidable.”
Israeli officials quickly condemned the statement and the U.S. issued a statement saying that it was pursuing a diplomatic track to convince Iran to halt its nuclear program.
“It was a very inopportune statement made by a politician who is trying to woo the rightwing in Israel and nothing beyond that,” said Ret. Gen. Shlomo Gazit, a former head of Israel’s military intelligence. “He has no responsibility to decide that issue and he was rightly criticized by the prime minister and the defense minister.”
He pointed out that Israel’s position is that the Israeli officials should “avoid talking about the subject and that we should leave it to outside powers to deal with Iran. We should not give up the military option, but only as a very, very last resort.”
Asked about the latest intelligence estimates about when Iran will have the ability to produce nuclear weapons, Gazit said it ranges between one and five years. And he said that once it developed one bomb, it would wait until it developed at least a dozen before considering using it.
“I don’t know what their problem is,” Gazit pondered. “Is it only the need to accumulate enough uranium or do they still need to acquire the know-how and the capability of turning it into a weapons system?”