Olmert Is Losing Ground in Dash for Kadima and Government Lead

Ehud Olmert’s hand was forced to grant elder statesman Shimon Peres the No.2 position on the Kadima list, a concession the party’s founder Ariel Sharon would have blocked had he remained at the helm instead of unconscious in hospital. The list Sharon reportedly sketched out before his massive stroke a week ago placed Peres in 7th place.
Still, justice minister Tsipi Livni gave up her slot to Peres in return for a promise of the foreign ministry if Kadima and Olmert form the next government – two big ifs.
Peres’s promotion was devised to upgrade the Kadima line-up for the March 28 election when the Olmert-Livni duo failed to come up to scratch as a dream team in internal opinion polls conducted in the week since Sharon collapsed.
Kadima also saw Binyamin Netanyahu as a looming threat as his Likud began narrowing the gap between the two parties. Thursday, Jan. 12, 3,000 Likud central committee members choose the party’s parliamentary state from among 92 candidates. The selection favored by Netanyahu is more centrist than right-wing so as to match Kadima for the same ground.
Olmert’s next setback was a kite flown by Sharon’s close advisers and family Wednesday Jan. 11 to place the ailing prime minister in the No. 1 slot of Kadima. They also began spreading word, unconfirmed by his doctors, that Sharon had begun communicating and showing other symptoms of a miraculous recovery. This transparent effort to fabricate a mythic figure was denounced as cynical manipulation of the sick leader for political profit.
The acting PM suffered two further blows since he took over.
1. He was neatly outmaneuvered by the Bush administration on Palestinian elections in E. Jerusalem. Olmert tried telling US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice that his government would not allow Hamas to electioneer and place its candidates’ names on voter slips in Jerusalem, but she overruled him, stating Israel could not stop independents from running for election.
Both know that most Hamas and Fatah candidates in Jerusalem are running as independents. Olmert has thus landed himself with having to explain to the Israeli voter ahead how he let the Palestinians backed by Washington divide Jerusalem and how Hamas’ “independent” candidates were allowed to walk off with victory in the Israeli capital. His Likud rivals will not let him off lightly.
Rice also informed the acting PM that he was not off the hook regarding the deal she brokered in November to open up a regular Palestinian land link between Gaza and the West. A further list of demands on behalf of the Palestinians was on its way to Jerusalem, she said, and would be delivered Thursday, Jan. 12, by two senior US officials, dep. national security adviser Elliott Abrams and ass. secretary of state David Welch.
2. Tuesday, Jan. 10, The New York Times prominently ran a long article captioned Netanyahu stands by in an uncertain Israel. Ex-leader could be heir to his old rival (Ariel Sharon).
This was the second American blow below the belt for Olmert, whose strategic advisers assumed the NYT’s editors must have received the nod from Washington to publish this blurb.
The optimistic slant placed on Hadassah’s medical updates on Sharon’s condition has moreover sent Olmert backing down to his first humble posture of provisional holder of the keys of government, whose job is limited to ensuring continuity of government with a collective leadership of Kadima’s influence brokers.
This clique planted Peres as supervisor for the inexperienced Olmert and Livni in the absence of Sharon. In the Number 2 slot on the Kadima list, Peres will retain a dominant influence over any government formed by Sharon’s party.
It is not necessarily true that Washington does not want Olmert in the prime minister’s seat, an impression gained from the way they are beating him into the ground. debkafile‘s political analysts report that this state of affairs represents the true situation prevailing in US-Israeli relations. Sharon’s larger-than-life figure, personal prestige and skilful spin doctors obscured this relationship and were able to present a picture of absolute harmony and unity of strategic interests between Washington and Jerusalem. With Sharon out of the way, Olmert must face up to this highly problematical relationship.
3. The latest setback Olmert suffered Wednesday, Jan 11, was a large question mark over his retaining the prime minister’s seat even up to the March election. Israel’s Basic Law states the cabinet meets to choose a caretaker when the prime minister’s incapacity is diagnosed by his doctors and confirmed by the Attorney General. The law limits candidates to the prime minister’s parliamentary faction. Likud claims prime minister Ariel Sharon was elected on the Likud ticket before he broke away and established Kadima. Handing the succession to Kadima, says Likud, would constitute change of government without an election.

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