Olmert Throws in the Towel

Aug 1, 2008 | AIJAC staff

Update from AIJAC

August 1, 2008
Number 08/08 #01

As readers will largely be aware, on Wednesday night, embattled Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert announced to Israelis that he would not be contesting the leadership primary for his party, Kadima, scheduled for September 17, and will resign the prime ministership at that time. (The text of his statement is here). This Update deals with reactions to and the implications of this not-unexpected development.

First up, David Makovsky, the Washington Institute for Near East Policy’s specialist on Israeli politics, offers some broad analysis both of what is likely to happen next politically in Israel, and the effects of this latest development on Israel’s ongoing peace talks with Syria and the Palestinians. He says that the two scenarios for leadership differ depending on who wins the Kadima primary – the main candidates being Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Transport Minister Shaul Mofaz – with the former being more likely to call new elections and the latter likely to try to form a new coalition in the existing government. For this important backgrounder on the major issues, CLICK HERE.

Next up, Haaretz political reporter Yossi Verter examines how Israelis reacted to Olmert’s speech. He argues that if Olmert had made the relatively dignified exit he is now making some time ago, it would have been better received and his genuine accomplishments in office more appreciated. But now, he lacks “public trust or a sympathetic ear.” Verter argues that Olmert’s departure can be seen as effectively the final page of the story of the Lebanon war he initiated two years ago. For this take on how Olmert’s statement is being received in Israel, CLICK HERE. Additional comments on the reception of Olmert’s effective resignation come from Herb Keinon of the Jerusalem Post, and Attila Somfalvi of Yediot Ahronot.

Finally, the Jerusalem Post editorialises on the “long goodbye” to Olmert likely to be in store for the next few months, with him likely to remain as caretaker well after the Kadima primary, and if new elections are called, possibly into next year. The paper calls for a smooth transition, including a continuation of talks with the Palestinians, because the status quo is not viable, and therefore the talks cannot be suspended.  However, the paper also argues that no substantial concessions can be offered by Israel in the interim period unless agreed upon through consultations across political factions. For the paper’s arguments about this and other measures that should be part of a smooth transition of power in Israel, CLICK HERE.

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 Olmert’s Announcement Fuels Uncertainty in Israel

By David Makovsky    
PolicyWatch #1393
July 31, 2008

Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert announced yesterday that he will not compete in his party’s September primary and will resign as premier once a new leader is elected. The move ends Olmert’s two and half years as Israeli premier, a post he took up after Ariel Sharon’s debilitating stroke in January 2006. High-profile allegations of financial wrongdoing have cast a shadow over his administration in past months, and until recently, he pledged he would leave only if there were a formal indictment. His announcement comes at a critical time for Israel and will certainly lead to sense of uncertainty about the future.
Two Scenarios for Succession
Olmert’s decision offers two possible scenarios for the Israeli government. In the first one, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni or Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz will establish a majority coalition much like the one that exists today. This rationale is predicated on the view that neither the Kadima Party nor its junior partner Labor Party are doing well enough in the polls to favour new elections and therefore will be eager to continue the current coalition arrangement. Only Benjamin Netanyahu, leader of the Likud Party, has announced his desire for new elections.
In the other scenario, Olmert’s announcement will mark the beginning of political turbulence, culminating in new general elections. Since coalition formation proves difficult when a party decides that joining a new, short-lived alliance does not serve its interests, Israel may be forced to hold new elections if the government cannot form a coalition after ninety days. Israeli law requires a new general election by 2010, and Israeli coalitions are famous for not surviving their full term. One party that may want early elections is Shas — the Orthodox Sephardic party. Its voter base is more consistent than that of Kadima or Labor, so early elections would not be viewed as an electoral risk. Shas could use the perennial budgetary battle in the coming months to pressure Livni or Mofaz to accept difficult fiscal demands for its constituents.
In either scenario, Kadima — Olmert’s party — will choose a new leader in a primary on September 17 or in a subsequent run-off between the top two candidates one week later. Once the leader is chosen, Olmert will resign. At that point, Israeli president Shimon Peres will authorize a member of Knesset, presumably the new head of Kadima, to form a new government. This individual will have up to forty-two days to put a new government together. Until then, Olmert’s administration will serve as a caretaker government with the same legal authority as before.
Livni v. Mofaz: Differing Strategies
September will mark Kadima’s first-ever primary. Sharon founded the party at the end of 2005, amid frustration that many in Likud did not support disengagement from Gaza. If the pattern of other parties holds true for Kadima, out of its estimated 80,000 eligible members, only about half will actually vote.
The two top candidates to succeed Olmert have distinct campaign strategies. Livni is the front-runner, but polls suggest her lead over Mofaz is narrowing. She has made clear that she will run on her perceived strength of personal probity, which she hopes will provide counterpoint to Olmert. She also hopes that her stature as foreign minister will make her more electable than Mofaz, since one of them will have to face two former prime ministers — Ehud Barak and Benjamin Netanyahu — in the general election. Livni’s proponents state that her electability is based on her embodiment of the pragmatic Israeli center, thus giving fresh life to the new party that was catapulted to power in the March 2006 election. She will argue that the mixture of Likud political roots and her moderate demeanor enables her to take votes both from the right and left.
Mofaz, in contrast, will undoubtedly make a security argument. He will assert that he is best positioned to lead Israel, given his background as a former defense minister and chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces. He will emphasize Israel’s deep anxiety about Iran’s nuclear program, an issue with which he has substantial experience as leader of the strategic dialog with the United States. Mofaz has also touted close ties with Shas and has therefore painted himself as someone who is best positioned to win that party’s support to form a coalition until 2010.
Palestinians and Iran
Olmert’s resignation seemingly ends the efforts of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to bring about an Israeli-Palestinian breakthrough by the end of the year, a goal she and President Bush set at the Annapolis peace conference last November. Although Olmert’s loss of political and moral authority is only partly responsible for the lack of progress, his resignation provides Rice with an excuse to explain why the U.S. administration was unable to produce a successful conclusion.
 At the same time, the current negotiating positions of the Israelis and Palestinians could become a baseline for talks under the new U.S. president in 2009. To demonstrate improvement, Rice wants a document that publicly discloses this year’s progress, since there seems to be only narrow differences on certain issues, such as West Bank territory for a Palestinian state. This approach, however, may be nothing short of anathema to Livni and Mofaz, who both are seeking the support of ex-Likud voters in next month’s primaries. For these voters, such an approach would publicly expose the political concessions that Kadima made to the Palestinians without any compensatory benefits of a diplomatic breakthrough. Speculation arose that Rice counted on Olmert’s sinking popularity as precisely the reason to grasp for a diplomatic breakthrough; he would then use the breakthrough as a rationale for his candidacy in the Kadima primary. This approach, however, was not taken, perhaps amid concern that such a strategy could have backfired if the Israeli public thought he made concessions to secure his own political future. As caretaker, he now will certainly lack the moral authority to move ahead on the peace process.
The most pressing policy question remaining is whether the new Israeli political dynamic will add fresh uncertainty regarding Iran in the coming months. There has been increasing speculation, coupled with Israeli statements and a major air force exercise off the coast of Greece, that Israel might attack Iran in the final months of a Bush presidency. In addition to questions about the prospects and advisability of such an attack, there is now uncertainty as to who will be making the decisions.
Undoubtedly, the circumstances surrounding the fall of Olmert will be dissected for a long time. Between an inconclusive 2006 war against Hizballah and a swirl of personal-corruption allegations, it is unclear as to what extent each factor contributed to his announcement this week. Other aspects of his legacy — an improving economy, efficient day-to-day political management, and wider Israeli public support for the principle of a two-state solution — will be debated as well. In the meantime, political uncertainty will be the immediate impact of Olmert’s latest decision.
David Makovsky is a senior fellow and director of The Washington Institute’s Project on the Middle East Peace Process.

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Crushed and battered, Olmert finally broke

Yossi Verter

Haaretz, 31/07/2008

“This was a speech – respectful, restrained – that Ehud Olmert should have delivered long ago. Right after the Second Lebanon War, some will say. Right after Talansky’s testimony, others will say, or after the Olmertours scandal broke.

If he had stepped down at the war’s end in August 2006, he would have saved us and himself much suffering, shame and investigation. By now, he might already have been in the midst of a political comeback.

But the Olmert who spoke on Wednesday from the garden of his compound in Jerusalem was a crushed and battered man, tainted by allegations, lacking public trust or a sympathetic ear.

Thus his destiny was determined.

But make no mistake: He is still with us, at least until November, and if a government is not assembled this fall under another Kadima leader, he may even be with us until next February or March.

The achievements he noted in the speech – economic, military and social – are indeed commendable. If it weren’t for the war in Lebanon and the investigations against him, he could have been remembered as one of Israel’s better and more effective prime ministers.

Today, such a description sounds strange – an Olmert without the Lebanon war and the investigations hardly seems like Olmert. To his great sadness, it is those things we will remember about him – regrettable new expressions like “money envelopes” and “Rishon Tours” will remain with us long after he is not.

Perhaps only deep into the next prime minister’s term will we enjoy relative peace and quiet, a stable economy, low unemployment, support abroad and a steady flow of visiting foreign leaders.

Two weeks ago, when the bodies of captured soldiers Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser were returned from Lebanon, much was written about the war finally coming to an end.

That is not exactly true. The war’s tombstone was only finished on Wednesday, when the last and most senior functionary responsible for its failure finally announced he would take a seat.

Indeed it was the war, in large part, that sealed Olmert’s destiny – the subsequent corruption charges only accelerated his demise.

With all the attendant drama, Olmert’s announcement on Wednesday was predictable. No one expected him to run in the Kadima primaries again, and he would have resigned anyway if his replacement had set up a new government.

In hindsight, the announcement on Wednesday was the handiwork of Ehud Barak – who as Labor leader forced primaries on Kadima – and no one is more ready than Olmert to remind us of that.

In talks with Labor ministers in recent weeks, Olmert spoke in no uncertain terms of his feelings toward Barak. He would like nothing better than to exact revenge, but he does not know how. He simply has too many potential targets: Barak, Livni, Public Security Minister Avi Dichter

Theoretically, the prime minister is expected to be indicted while still in office, a scenario from which we have been spared until now. This prospect doubtless passed through his mind last night, but he managed to keep up appearances.

The only moment his voice shook was when describing the suffering of his family, which has been publicly dragged through the muck along with him. Maybe that was what finally broke him.”

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Editorial: A long good-bye


On Wednesday evening Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told the citizens of Israel that he would resign as soon as a new Kadima Party leader was chosen in September.

It may be a long good-bye.

Chances are Olmert will stay on for weeks, possibly months, beyond the September 17 Kadima primary. He will likely wait until his successor forms a government, perhaps in October. If Kadima can’t pull a coalition together, general elections will probably be scheduled for early 2009; the winner will then need time to form a government.

Olmert doesn’t intend to spend the coming months in caretaker mode. Saying Israel is “closer than ever to firm understandings that can serve as a basis for agreements” on both the Palestinian and Syrian tracks, he is hoping for a deal with Mahmoud Abbas and Bashar Assad.

THERE ARE two things Israel cannot afford. The first is a lengthy vacuum in the conduct of our security, political and diplomatic affairs. The second is a bad diplomatic deal that could be seen as binding on Olmert’s successor.

Olmert must resist the temptation to give more than he should in bargaining, and more than he would in other circumstances in order to tie up a legacy-building accord.

But why not put diplomacy on hold until a new government is formed? Because the clock is ticking, whether we like it or not. The reason Israel is negotiating with Abbas – besides pressure from the international community – is that the status quo is untenable.

Israel needs to remain both Jewish and democratic, as well as economically, culturally and politically aligned with America and Europe. That means Jerusalem must strive continuously for an accommodation with the relative moderates among the Palestinians.

That said, it is the Palestinians who remain obdurate. They insist on an Israeli withdrawal to the untenable 1949 Armistice Lines, and show no flexibility on such key issues as Jerusalem and refugees. Abbas, moreover, may not be able to deliver a deal even if he wanted to; his polity is fragmented and he’s done nothing to prepare the Palestinians for compromise – nothing to emphasize to his own people the legitimacy of the Jews’ sovereign claims.

Hamas, for its part, is spinning Olmert’s resignation as proof that negotiating with Israel is a waste of time. Yet it’s nothing of the sort. Were Abbas cast more in the mold of an Anwar Sadat or a King Hussein, a breakthrough would be more likely. And seven years of Hamas bombardment of Israeli territory from Gaza hasn’t helped matters.

EVEN AS Israel looks inward, awaiting the formation of the next government, its security and diplomatic concerns are ever more pressing. Hamas continues to hold sway in Gaza and to build up arms for the next round of fighting. Hizbullah ascendancy in Lebanese politics grows while it lays the groundwork for future aggression. Iran perseveres in bringing centrifuges on-line as it spins toward a nuclear weapon. The Syrian track demands skillful handling to ensure that no genuine opportunity for peace is missed – and no bad deal is hastily arrived at.

Across the Atlantic, George Bush’s term as president expires in six months. Time flies, and we are mindful that there may be opportunities Israel can best take while this unusually empathetic president remains in power.

Whether it is talks with Abbas, managing the security situation along our northern border and with Gaza or pursuing efforts to free Gilad Schalit, the country’s foreign and security predicament cannot be put on hold.

THAT IS why now more than ever, personal animosities notwithstanding, Ehud Olmert must demonstrably put country before self. It is imperative that fateful decisions whose consequences may extend far into the future be reached via leadership consensus.

Olmert must, as he has promised, coordinate with Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Defense Minister Ehud Barak, as well as with Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz in his capacity as minister in charge of strategic dialogue with the US on Iran. He should also solicit input from opposition leader Binyamin Netanyahu.

Ehud Olmert did not have the benefit of a smooth transition when he took over from the stricken Ariel Sharon in January 2006. To the extent that he winds down his tenure in an atmosphere characterized by consultation and stability he will be doing both his legacy and the country a great service.

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