Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has been prominent in Israeli politics for more than 30 years. He has moved up the ranks from a back bench member of Knesset, through appointments as minister in charge of minor and major departments, with a period as mayor of Jerusalem.
A short while ago commentators were saying that he was a lame dunk, and more likely a dead duck.
The Knesset was scheduled to vote on a proposal to call new elections. There seemed to be a majority assured for the proposal, and Olmert's career was thought to have, at the most, another few months to sputter toward its end.
Then Olmert agreed that his political party, Kadima, would have a primary to select its party leader before the end of September. This caused Ehud Barak to withdraw Labor Party support from the proposal for an early election.
Olmert's colleague and long time ally, who arranged the deal with Labor, said on national television that he did not expect Olmert to run in the party primary.
All this was in keeping with what we have been hearing from prominent journalists, who were repeating what they heard from close allies of the prime minister. Olmert has been preoccupied with his personal problems; and has not shown the decisiveness he previously displayed, and which is necessary to operate a state with the problems that Israel faces.
Again we see that there is not much room for loyalty in politics. Alliances change with assessments of a colleague's strength, and "what's in it for me." Several Kadima party leaders were saying that they hoped Olmert could clear his name, even while they were lining up support for their own candidacies in the coming primary.
Olmert's problems reflect several investigations concerned with criminal violations. Most prominent in recent months was testimony provided an American fund raiser and political operative, Morris Talansky.
For a few hours after the deal was announced to avoid a call for a new election, expectations were that Olmert would time his resignation as prime minister according to the selection of a new party leader. Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni was leading in the polls, and people were thinking that she would be running the country before too long.
Not so fast.
In a heated exchange in the Knesset, Olmert indicated that he would be a candidate in his party's primary, and that it was "business as usual" in the prime minister's office.
Was this anything more than the last gasp of a dying ego uttered in the heat of a parliamentary debate?
Morris Talansky may be as vulnerable in his own behavior as his testimony suggests about the prime minister. Olmert has suggested that Talansky is part of a right-wing campaign to discredit him in order to end any chance of making an agreement with the Palestinians.
Olmert's lawyers will cross examine Talansky in July. A current poll indicates that if Talansky's testimony proves disappointing, and if Olmert runs in his party's primary, he would lead his competitors.
Politics puts a premium on the skills of maneuverability, craftiness, bluffing, understatement, exaggeration, dissembling, timing, and flexibility. None of these may be the traits desired in a close friend with whom one would exchange confidences. But they may be essential in a governmental setting like Israel's. No political party has ever won a majority in a national election. All ruling cabinets are coalitions among politicians looking out for their own interests, who may leave the team at short notice. A prime minister must view his colleagues as potential competitors, and keep them in line. The country as a whole faces tough antagonists on the international front, who are looking after their own interests. There are also intense enemies intent on doing great harm to Israel.
The latest news is that Olmert was booed when he spoke at a public ceremony opening a prominent new bridge at the entrance of Jerusalem.
It is too early to conclude that he will survive another challenge, or is stumbling toward the end of a long career.
Ira Sharkansky (Emeritus)
Department of Political Science
Hebrew University of Jerusalem
Home tel: 972-2-532-2725
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