Ehud Olmert leapt agilely from deep pit of disgrace straight into the political limelight Tuesday, July 10 as a potential political game-changer. After living under the cloud of corruption for four years, he was cleared for lack of proof “beyond reasonable doubt.”by the Jerusalem District Court of the two most heinous counts which forced his resignation as prime minister. Surrounded by political allies and friends, he smilingly warned reporters: “You’ll soon be seeing plenty of me around.”
He moved so smoothly that it was hard to remember that he was convicted of one of the three charges: breach of trust while serving as Minister of Trade and Industry; or that he still faced trial for graft in the big Holyland case while Mayor of Jerusalem.
Olmert clearly expects to land on his feet as the great unifier of a left-of-center political bloc. He sees himself as the only man capable of merging an amorphous assortment of left-wing, socialist, protest and otherwise angry groups and parties, which are too small, weak and fragmented to form a viable opposition to the broad right-of-center government coalition headed by Binyamin Netanyahu and his Likud.
Aside from being a remarkably slick politician, Olmert has another qualifier: Before his forced resignation in 2008, he was the Israeli prime minister who came closest to a deal with the Palestinians by offering uniquely generous concessions.
As such, Olmert is in a position to attract the dwindling far-left Meretz, the fledgling Yesh Atid (There is a Future) and Socialist Labor, although Labor’s Shelly Yachimovitch will fight hard for her dream of restoring Labor to its old preeminence.
He would be able to rally factions in the Kadima party he once led, who are disgruntled with their current leader Shaul Mofaz for joining the Netanyahu government as deputy prime minister.
Olmert could also provide a home for anti-Likud, out-of-work, dovish ex-security and army heads like the former Mossad director Meir Dagan, former chiefs of staff Gaby Ashkenazi and Meir Halutz and ex-Shin Bet Director Yuval Diskin.
The burgeoning social protest movements may also be swept up in the unifying momentum, particularly as most of them draw their ideas and funding from the same, often foreign, sources and share the same hankering to overturn the government in power.
All these groups and figures would temporarily throw their differences to the winds in their rush for a place in a new left-of-center coalition – however short-lived it may be. The long-stalled negotiations with the Palestinians would provide a handy political slogan for factional fusion.
Even before this nascent process takes off, the politicians who succeeded Olmert as leaders of Kadima: Tzipi Livni and the man who beat her to the top, Shaul Mofaz, look like shadows.
As foreign minister in the Olmert government, Livni will not be forgiven for conniving with (the then and now) Defense Minister Ehud Barak to drive him out of the prime minister’s office when he was accused of suspected corruption. He was hounded out even before he was indicted.
Just four days ago, Livni made a well-publicized appearance at a big demonstration in Tel Aviv on behalf of a new law for ending exemptions from military duty for ultra-religious yeshiva students and Arab citizens (Equal Sharing of the Burden). Tuesday, her image and hopes of a comeback were quickly overlaid by the triumphant former prime minister.
Some scrambling was also detected in the ruling camp under Netanyahu’s unchallenged leadership. His popularity has recently taken a knock from the way he wavered over legislation for making compulsory conscription universal. His actions were criticized for being prompted by the narrow political motive of preserving his government coalition against the loss of Kadima’s Mofaz who championed the Equal Burden movement, rather than meeting a just popular demand.
Prime Minister Netanyahu feels the need to shore up his government against the loss of a senior coalition partner: The hard-line Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman of Israeli Beitenu goes on trial next month for alleged financial wrongdoing including money laundering. For the duration of the trial and in case of his conviction, Lieberman has chosen an able successor, Yair Shamir, son of the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir who passed away on June 30.
Shamir is close to Vice Prime Minister Moshe Yaalon of Likud. They are emerging as possible leaders of a solidified right-of-center alliance against a future left-of-center bloc. It would bring together Likud, Israeli Beitenu, Independence (led by Ehud Barak) and the National Union.
Israel’s political anatomy is historically dominated by two big rival alliances which operate on opposite sides of the aisle most of the time, but tend to join forces for national unity in some national emergencies.
The two camps have this in common: Each traditionally enlists ultra-religious groups, Shas and Degel Hatorah, as tie-breakers to gain the lead in forming a government, and then builds them safe niches in their coalition governments.