Livni, Peres, Mofaz Lead the Field to Replace Olmert as Prime Minister
The resignation on live television of minister of trade and commerce, Eytan Cabel, Labor, declaring Ehud Olmert must go as he had lost the country’s confidence, was the first open crack in the government coalition. It occurred Tuesday morning, May 1, less than 24 hours after the Winograd commission handed down its harsh condemnation of Olmert, defense minister Amir Peretz and chief of staff, Lt. Gen Dan Halutz, for their handling of the Lebanon War.
But behind the scenes and its leader’s back, Kadima’s coalition chairman Avigdor Yitzhaki scurried around the ranks, front man for one of the key contenders for the succession, foreign minister Tzipi Livni.
The prime minister’s other deserters included vice premier Shimon Peres, Israel Beitenu leader Avigdor Lieberman and most of Labor, including the three contenders for the party leadership, former PM Ehud Barak, Ami Ayalon and Ophir Pines-Paz.
That was only the first wave to batter against Olmert’s defenses.
Another wave threatened Thursday, April 3: The Knesset has been called into emergency session to consider the Winograd report; so too has the ruling Kadima faction. Foreign minister Tzipi Livni has held silent so far but is expected to join the chorus demanding that Olmert step down.
Hundreds of thousands of Israeli demonstrators are expected to tell him to go home at a mass rally in Tel Aviv Thursday night, May 3, called by the reservists’ movement and bereaved families. Residents of the southern towns of Sderot and Beersheba and Haifa in the north are slogging on foot to join Thursday’s rally, amid impromptu protest demonstrations.
The coalition chairman’s talks with government factions Tuesday not only canvassed support for a mutiny against the prime minister, but also explored which Kadima candidate could draw enough support to hold the government together. Above all, the ruling party wants to avoid a general election little more than a year after it was voted into office.
The foreign minister’s candidacy for prime minister is problematic. She is not popular with Labor or the ultra-religious Shas, two members of the government coalition.
Yitzhaki’s efforts to oust Olmert could therefore lead to Kadima’s candidate ending up as Shimon Peres or transport minister Shaul Mofaz, a former defense minister, rather than the foreign minister.
Peres is quietly working three channels:
First, he is selling himself to the second rank in Kadima and Labor as the only candidate capable of preserving national unity at a time of grave danger. His lobbyists also argue that because he is an octogenarian, he will not stay long and is therefore the ideal stabilizing agent to carry the country through the crisis of transition.
Second, he has reached out the discredited defense minister, Labor leader Amir Peretz, asking for his support in return for a helping hand in the Labor leadership primaries at the end of the month.
Third, his agents are in secret talks with the Israel Beitenu leader, Avigdor Lieberman, warning him that if the government falls, Likud leader Binyamin Netanyahu will be reinstated in the prime minister’s office.
The least active candidate and the best qualified for handling a security emergency is Shaul Mofaz, former defense minister and chief of staff. He would need the backing of Shas and Israeli Beitenu to beat the other contenders to the post.
The third party undermining Olmert on the quiet is Ehud Barak. debkafile sources report that it was he who signaled Eytan Kabel to quit the Olmert government and thus set off the wave of political turbulence which has pinnjed the prime minister to the wall.
The fourth of Olmert’s active opponents is Lieberman. He discreetly sparked a revolt in Kadima by ordering two Russian representative lawmakers, Marina Solodkin and Mikhail Nudelman, to hoist the flag of mutiny in the ruling party and call on its leader to quit.
Opposition leader, former Likud prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu, has played no party in the upheaval, much of which was staged to avert an early election.
According to the latest opinion poll, a general poll now would gain his Likud 36 Knesset seats out of 120 and probable victory.
But even Olmert’s downfall will not end the turbulence.
While the partial Winograd report presented Monday harshly condemned the way the war was conducted by the prime minister, defense minister and chief of staff, it made no specific recommendation for their resignation. The final report due out in August is expected to rectify this omission and name new names, including those of prime ministerial hopefuls.