Despite lengthy police questioning this week of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert into his role in a bank privatization deal, analysts have all but dismissed the probe and said Olmert’s political fortunes have never been better.
“There was a formal statement by the state attorney that if Olmert provides a reasonable explanation for his role in the privatization process, the investigation will be closed,” said Raanan Sulitzeanu-Kenan, a political science professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. “So it does not look like there is any danger for him at the moment.”
He said, however, that a newly opened criminal investigation into Olmert’s purchase of his home in Jerusalem appears more serious. But Sulitzeanu-Kenan said there is often a “thin line between a good deal and a suspicious deal.”
Olmert’s popularity rating is still low — only about 35 percent according to a recent poll — but it is better than the single digits of just a year ago, Sulitzeanu-Kenan said.
“But apart from being so unpopular, he stands on top of a very solid coalition,” he observed.
Gerald Steinberg, a professor of political studies at Bar-Ilan University, said that in fact Olmert “is in the strongest position he’s been in since the Lebanon War [a year ago], and maybe since he became prime minister” in April 2006.
“It’s not because he’s popular or successful, but it’s because all the other parties are weak and the political system is in a massive state of crisis that Olmert has been able to take advantage of,” he explained. “Corruption investigations could still bring him down, but that is totally unpredictable.”
Calev Ben-David, a political analyst for the Jerusalem Post, said conventional wisdom among many political pundits is that Olmert has “one of the most stable coalition governments in years.”
Citing news reports that the Winograd Commission investigating the government’s handling of the war in Lebanon is not going to suggest Olmert resign and that the police investigations can take a long time, Ben-David said Olmert “can look forward to relative peace on the political domestic front” ahead of next month’s American-sponsored Israeli-Palestinian peace summit.
Olmert told the opening meeting of the Knesset’s winter session Monday that he is prepared to move ahead with peace talks with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
“We must give negotiations a chance,” he said. “Israel has excellent excuses to justify stagnation in the talks; I don’t intend to look for excuses. … The peace process is a process that demands … [a] determination to accept brave unavoidable decisions, which involve relinquishing the full realization of the dreams that fed our national ethos for many years. Nothing is easier than to cling on to these dreams, and the price of awakening from them can be heavy for all of us.”
He did not mention the word “Jerusalem” in his remarks, but Vice Premier Haim Ramon said this week that the status of Jerusalem would be discussed at the summit.
“Israel has an interest to get recognition of all of Jerusalem’s Jewish neighborhoods, and to hand over control of Arab neighborhoods to the Palestinians,” he said.
In his rebuttal speech to the Knesset the opposition leader, Benjamin Netanyahu of Likud, warned that giving up control of East Jerusalem would simply “open the door to Al-Qaeda” and thus threaten Jews living in the rest of the city.
Steinberg said Netanyahu spoke as a man who understood that “he is laying out a strong opposition policy rather than trying to bring down the government immediately because he doesn’t have the forces to do that. Certainly all of the diplomatic activity [surrounding the summit] with Abbas, [Secretary of State Condoleezza] Rice and others is helping Olmert.”
Rice is expected to arrive back in the region Sunday to see how Olmert and Abbas are coming in the joint statement their aides are preparing for the summit. She may also use the occasion to announce the date of the summit, its location and the invitation list.
But Steinberg said he still believes the summit will have minimal results.
“Major changes will hurt him [Olmert] because it would galvanize the opposition,” he said. “Olmert is a very canny politician who wants to survive and say the right things to the right people but not do much. News reports saying the Palestinians are worried there will be no major agreements [at the summit] are coming from Olmert’s people to lower expectations. And I see no evidence that the Palestinians are ready to deal on the issue of [Palestinian] refugees to accept the small Israeli concessions on Jerusalem. … I think Olmert will try to look magnanimous at the summit and put its failure on Abbas’ shoulders.”
Ahead of the summit, simultaneous peace rallies by Israeli Jews and Palestinians are slated to be held next Thursday in Tel Aviv and Jericho in support of a two-state solution and an Israeli withdrawal to its 1967 borders. The rallies’ organizer, OneVoice, is said to have collected the signatures of more than 500,000 Israelis and Palestinians calling on their governments to make peace.
The rallies comes at a time when left-wing organizations such as Peace Now have garnered little support since the breakdown in peace talks in 2000 and the subsequent Palestinian violence. Steinberg said he believes this rally will be an attempt by supporters of these groups to “reestablish themselves.”
But, he said, “there is no enthusiasm for this among the masses [because] nobody expects Abbas to deliver.”
More than 60 Israeli academics, religious and political leaders are said to have joined the group’s honorary board of directors, including Rabbi David Rosen, International Director of Interreligious Affairs at the American Jewish Committee. Rabbi Rosen noted that this organization was founded several years ago to bring people together who are on different sides of the political divide.
“I see it as an educational effort … to give people in both national communities a sense of hope that it is possible to rebuild trust,” he said. “The psychological dynamic is very important. The political systems in Israel and the Palestinian Authority are not the kind of civil democracies that facilitate significant grassroots impact. Those in the Knesset have a loyalty to their party and are impervious to grassroots influence.”
But Rabbi Rubin said supporters of OneVoice “hope that having enough grassroots support will give political leaders a sense that they have the backing to take the steps necessary to bring about a resolution of the conflict.”
Such rallies and Olmert’s prior statements that he is ready to turn over large sections of the West Bank to the Palestinians in a land swap for the large Jewish settlement blocs has many Israeli Jewish settlers worried but determined to stay in their homes.
“We are not going to give up,” said Ruti Avraham, a resident of Bet El, an Israeli settlement in the hills north of Jerusalem and just to the east of Ramallah. “We are always on alert because we have seen what Israel can do.”
She was referring to the forced withdrawal of more than 8,000 Jewish settlers from the Gaza Strip two years ago.
“Anybody who thinks that was a nice achievement is a psycho,” Avraham insisted. “This was the biggest mistake Israel has made since the beginning of its origin. Taking people out of their homes — what for? Peace?”
She said she feared that handing over sections of the West Bank near Ben Gurion Airport would put international aircraft in danger from Palestinian missiles.
“You hear what’s going on in Sderot?” she asked, referring to the Israeli border community near the Gaza Strip that has come under almost daily Palestinian rocket attacks.
Avraham said she expected there would be a demonstration from right-wing supporters ahead of the summit, but she questioned its effectiveness.
“How come big demonstrations don’t move the people who are elected?” she asked. “There were demonstrations against Likud [to protest the planned Gaza evacuation], but [then-Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon didn’t give a damn.”