Jun 24, 2008 | Amotz Asa-El
Contenders and pretenders
By Amotz Asa-El
Ehud Olmert may still be manoeuvring, but practically everyone else in Israel agrees, and all dynamics indicate, that his time as prime minister is up.
American fundraiser Morris Talansky’s testimony in court – that during his years as mayor of Jerusalem, and then while he was deputy prime minister, Olmert had repeatedly demanded and obtained from him large sums of cash that were delivered in envelopes – has seriously implicated Olmert legally, and all but finished him off politically. Now the question is no longer whether the current political order can survive, but what will replace it.
Legally, Talansky’s testimony is reportedly corroborated by Olmert’s former partner in his law firm, and by the datebooks of the prime minister’s longtime secretary. Barring a dramatic turn of events during the main witness’ cross-examination in July, the testimony is likely to produce an indictment, in which case Olmert has publicly promised to resign. Publicly, however, it no longer matters just when, how or even whether Olmert is indicted. The testimony has touched off a massive media outcry and set in motion a political process that has assumed a life of its own.
In terms of the letter of the law, Olmert’s potential charges involve campaign financing – for which he claims the funds were intended – as well as bribery and breach of trust, as Talansky testified that Olmert said he was seeking the transfers as loans, which he never repaid. Yet Talansky’s stories, particularly those about Olmert’s weakness for luxury, have put off mainstream Israelis regardless of legality. Making special efforts, even legally, to be upgraded from business to first class flights, or to be housed in a presidential suite in this or that ultra-expensive hotel, carries a banana-republic odour – even when not financed in shameful ways.
Olmert’s failure to immediately step forward and swiftly deny Talansky’s varied allegations has been widely interpreted as, at the very least, a de facto admission of intolerable misdemeanours. The morning after the testimony, it emerged that Olmert no longer had anyone alongside him other than his lawyers, aides and family. Hardly one politician, jurist, pundit or journalist came to his defence. Instead, less than three years after its improbable arrival, all were beginning to anticipate and plan the manoeuvres that would eventually end the Olmert era.
The first to take a stance, albeit in a typically cautious way, was Olmert’s second-in-command, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, who called for a primary election that would allow the ruling Kadima Party to replace its leader. Livni’s move was then joined by Labor leader Ehud Barak’s televised ultimatum to Kadima, to either replace the prime minister or see its major coalition partner back the Opposition’s bid for early elections.
Eventually Olmert realised he could no longer resist the growing pressure and announced his support for a primary election for his own succession. Olmert failed to attach a schedule to the party poll, which is more likely than not to bring his 34-year-long political career to its dishonourable end. However, Barak then dealt his former ally another blow, as he said Labor would in any event back the Opposition’s early election bill. Shas, Olmert’s second largest coalition ally, also said it would back the bill. The bottom line of all this commotion is that too many forces are falling behind efforts to generate an early general election, possibly as soon as November, a good two years ahead of the originally scheduled date.
The jockeying is therefore unfolding on two levels: within Kadima, for Olmert’s succession, and beyond there, for Kadima’s succession.
There are several contenders within Kadima, but the leading names right now are Livni and Transport Minister Shaul Mofaz. Mofaz, who served under Sharon as defence minister and before that as chief of general staff, is positioning himself as a defence expert and a hawk on all matters concerning the Mideast conflict. As part of this strategy, he first recommended in an interview with the Yediot Ahronot daily that Israel attack Iran, then deemed Syrian President Bashar Assad “unready” for a peace deal. To make himself even clearer, Mofaz visited the Golan Heights and declared there that he would consider moving house to live in the territory Syria demands in turn for peace.
While such positions are perfectly acceptable in Israel, they did leave some activists wondering why Mofaz is seeking the leadership of Kadima, a party that has often positioned itself even to the left of Labor on matters concerning the conflict. If these are his views, some wondered, why didn’t he stay in the Likud, which he originally represented?
Even more perplexing for his party have been Mofaz’s pronouncements vis-à-vis Iran, where he was born and raised until the age of nine. Within hours of his unauthorised warning to Teheran, the mullahs, the White House and Wall Street all came after him, the first wagging a finger at the Jewish state, the second begging its leaders to keep their mouths shut, and the third by hiking the price of crude oil nearly 10%.
Since that sobering experience, Mofaz has said little – a policy that his main rival, former Mossad agent Livni, has pursued all along with great zeal. Livni, who is leading Mofaz in the polls, is hoping her record as “Mrs. Clean” will offset her image as a cold fish who makes few friends, fires aides at will, and generally lacks the kind of social skills that are indispensable for modern politics. Livni also hopes to earn kudos for her record of balanced judgement, whether as the privatisation czar who sold Israel’s largest bank a decade ago; the justice minister who at times struggled with the Supreme Court, but generally defended its independence and clout; or the foreign minister who is leading talks for a future deal with the Palestinian Authority.
The emerging showdown between Livni, an introverted woman, lawyer, and former spy who hailed from well-to-do north Tel Aviv, and Mofaz, a loose-lipped paratrooper who prides himself on his humble upbringing in Israel’s southernmost town of Eilat, holds the potential for some political drama.
However, with Olmert leaving the stage discredited, the ruling party’s squabbles might make it fail its real test, which is to clean up its corrupt image. This, apparently, was Labor leader Barak’s hope when he threw down the gauntlet, challenging Kadima to depose its leader.
Labor, the second largest faction in the current Knesset, hopes to fashion itself as the alternative to Olmert’s perceived hedonism and frivolity. The problem with that sales strategy is that if Kadima is led by Livni then, according to polls, it may retain a good 75% of the following with which it won the general election of March ’06. Worse yet for Labor, what followers the centrist Kadima loses appear to be veering not left, but right – toward the Likud.
All polls indicate that were a general election held today, the winner would be current opposition leader and former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu. This prospect becomes even clearer when the polls speculate about the possibility that Netanyahu team up with the hard-line Avigdor Lieberman’s faction, which currently commands one tenth of the Knesset, and only one seat less than the Likud itself.
Neither Labor nor Likud are perceived as particularly moral or visionary, but Netanyahu – according to some 30% of the public – had nothing to do with the two great policy failures associated with Kadima: the Second Lebanon War and the plan to unilaterally leave the West Bank, as Olmert promised to Labor’s cheers, before being forced to change course in the wake of the Islamist Hamas’ gains throughout Palestinian society. Add to that the middle class’ attitude toward Netanyahu’s economic reforms in the Sharon Government – which ranges from respect to enthusiasm – and you get Israel’s next prime minister, heading a coalition of conservative nationalists and religious populists.
Paradoxically, such a government could also end up including a newly trimmed Kadima headed by Livni, whose political baptism came back in 1996 when then-prime minister Netanyahu appointed her head of the State Corporations Authority. It could also happen with a Kadima led by Mofaz, though he once attacked Netanyahu for having been born “with a silver spoon in his mouth.”
In such an event, some may wrongly conclude that the Olmert era had come and gone with Israel merely returning to the old Left-Right fault-line that had for decades defined its political structure. Such an analysis would be unfounded.
The rise of Kadima, whose following before Sharon fell ill was more than 50% higher than the actual vote it won after his departure, reflected more than raw admiration for the leader who had defeated the terror that befell Israel earlier this decade. In his career’s twilight, Sharon combined personal charisma, economic resolve, military resourcefulness, diplomatic flexibility and a promise for political reform. In following a man who was once anathema to the political mainstream, Israelis expressed an appreciation for the anti-terror barrier he built in the West Bank, for his decision to pull out of Gaza, for the school reform he began and for his backing of his Treasurer Netanyahu’s Thatcherite reforms.
Kadima’s failure to deliver governance and vision under Olmert’s leadership does not mean that the public no longer appreciates the pragmatism with which the formerly rigid Sharon eventually became identified. With a growing number of Israelis annually joining the middle class in an increasingly prosperous society, chances are a critical mass of those currently backing Netanyahu will slowly push him, too, to move left from his current position – the way they once did with his arch rival Ariel Sharon, and with Netanyahu’s former protégé, Tzipi Livni.