Israel's embattled Olmert survives, for now

The prime minister skirted a vote to dissolve Israel's parliament by agreeing to allow a September primary election within his centrist Kadima Party.

Haim Hornshtein/AP
Mr. Unpopular: Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is seen here during a visit to a school in June. His popularity dropped following corruption charges.

Only hours before the Israeli parliament had been poised to dissolve itself early Wednesday – the first step in a no-confidence motion to bring down the government of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert – the unpopular Mr. Olmert secured himself a few more months in office by agreeing to hold primaries in his Kadima Party by late September.

Many Israelis went to sleep Tuesday thinking that Wednesday would be the beginning of the end, and woke up the following morning to find that Olmert and the left-leaning Labor party, led by Defense Minister Ehud Barak, had reached a deal: They put the brakes on bringing the government down and Olmert would commit to stepping aside and allowing the Kadima, not yet four years old, to choose a new leader.

Why did some of Olmert's toughest adversaries allow him to stay, following widespread calls for him to resign as details of a criminal investigation into a cash-taking scandal became apparent in the past month? Some cite fear of losing seats in the next parliament, while others say decisionmakers are convinced that Israel is in such a precarious place, with so much movement in various international and regional conflicts that throwing out the government now is too risky.

"The bigger parties – Shas, Labor, and Kadima – are not interested in early elections, because they don't think they will do better in early elections. About 80 or 90 of the 120 members of Knesset [Israel's parliament] can see that they won't be returning if there are early elections," says Peter Medding, an expert on Israeli politics at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

"Both the Labor Party and the Likud feel that this is the last thing the country needs and wants at this stage – because you go into a limbo, a sort of domestic spin, and it's not as if we don't have a few other things to keep us busy."

In these, he listed Israel's shaky truce with Hamas, which is just six days old and already being tested by militants who fired rockets into Israel Tuesday; possible negotiations with Hezbollah over Israel's captured soldiers; indirect talks with Syria; and nuclear tensions with Iran.

"I think that the overwhelming position in the country is that the prime minister should step down because he's in an untenable situation. But how do you get him do that?" adds Mr. Medding.

That Olmert's departure as prime minister is now a question not of if but of when seemed apparent from the way the last-minute deal was interpreted by the local Israeli press.

"Olmert knows that his term is finished," Columnist Nahum Barnea wrote in the mass-circulation paper, Yediot Aharonot. "His enemies have beaten him. Even if he succeeds in surviving until next March, he has lost the ability to lead and the public confidence he needs to implement tough decisions. He clings to his hope for a miracle.... As long as he sits on the seat of the prime minister, he must create the impression that he will sit there forever. Otherwise he will be eaten alive."

Right-wing parties were outraged that the pro-peace Labor Party backed out of its plans to bring down Olmert, following all-night mediation efforts.

Rightist opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu criticized Labor Party chairman Mr. Barak for going easy on Olmert and said that the whole coalition had shown itself to be "opportunist."

Expectations that Mr. Netanyahu might be a formidable candidate for prime minister – he was premier from 1996 to 1999 – is a major factor in the political calculations of Labor and Kadima.

Some analysts were concerned that the decision has the appearance of stability, but could backfire, and will certainly tie Olmert's hands from making any bold peace moves in the coming months.

"Anything he does in any direction, whether for peace or antipeace, he will be accused and suspected of doing it for political or personal motives, and of trying to distract people from all of the mounting evidence against him," says Medding.

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