I doubt that there are many Israelis who admire Ehud Olmert. We have heard about his desires for first class travel, opulent hotels, expensive fountain pens and cigars. From the six or so police investigations underway are other stories about the receipt of money-filled envelopes, sweetheart deals for private residences, multiple billing for travel, and doubtful actions for friends and supporters while occupying key posts in a long career.
Public opinion polls find him with about the same level of support in this country as George W. Bush has in his country.
There are no active indictments, and it may take a while for a cumbersome justice process to work its way. Rights of the accused are well entrenched in Jewish laws of ancient lineage, as well as the procedures of a politically correct modern state. Israel has enough good attorneys to mount impressive lines of defense for a prime minister accused of numerous kinds of impropriety, as well as equally good attorneys kept busy with the file of a former president renowned for his sexual appetites.
Moshe Katsav is no longer the president. His case drags along without public damage except for another flush of embarrassment whenever it returns to the headlines. Treasury officials recently ruled against his requests for office space in a pricey tower and a new luxury car. Former presidents are due a long list of benefits, but this is a special former president.
The issue of the prime minister is something else. He is still in office, and the most important figure in a government that deals with national defense as well as economic and social policy.
If the legal process is not ready to oust Olmert, what is the problem with his colleagues in the Kadima Party and other members of the Knesset?
The rules do not make it easy to dispatch a prime minister. An absolute majority of Knesset must agree not only to oust a prime minister, but to agree on a replacement.
Ehud Olmert did not get where he is without considerable skill. Religious and Arab parties have gotten some of what they want, and have not cooperated with anti-Olmert proposals.
The Kadima Party is committed to holding a primary to select a leader in September. Olmert has not yet agreed not to run, or to relinquish his post as prime minister if his party chooses another leader. The two leading competitors for party leadership (Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz) and two also-running (Domestic Security Minister Abraham Dicter and Interior Minister Meir Shitrit) are doing what they can to mobilize supporters, but have refrained from attacking Olmert in strong frontal assaults. He is still the prime minister with his hands on numerous levers, including those that can order the dismissal of errant ministers.
The problems are obvious. The public has shown, at least by opinion polls, that it wants a new prime minister. The suspicion may be well founded that he is so concerned with his personal problems that he is not functioning as a national leader.
However, the evidence of current improprieties is not strong. In recent days Olmert has participated in difficult decisions about Israeli captives held in Lebanon and Gaza. To be sure, there is dispute about his decisions, and with those of other ministers, but he has articulated his views in ways that appear reasonable. There is no indication that he has given away the store in negotiations with the Palestinians or the Syrians.
We do not know what is being decided about the threat from Iran, or the rearmament of Hizbollah north of us or Hamas south of us (both in contrast to international agreements). These involve the most delicate decisions of going to war, but there is no sign of irresponsibility from the prime minister.
Pending a crisis initiated by some other power that demands an immediate response, there is no reason other than good taste or political morality for pushing the legal or political figures to move faster. Good taste and political morality are important, and they are playing their part in Israeli politics. So far they have not produced mass demonstrations. There has been no end of tongue clucking, but that is not enough.
Ira Sharkansky (Emeritus)
Department of Political Science
Hebrew University of Jerusalem
Home tel: 972-2-532-2725
Cell phone: 054-683-5325