Tzipi Livni is in trouble.
She won a primary contest and is the nominal leader of the governing party, but the still sitting prime minister seems to be doing everything in his power to assure that she cannot win the national election.
Nominal Prime Minister Olmert continues to meet with the nominal President of Palestine, and has told the still sitting President of the United States that an agreement between Israel and Palestine is possible before the end of their terms.
While he was in Washington, Olmert's one-time close ally the Minister of Finance outlined a program to deal with part of the economic crisis that has begun to threaten Israel with increasing unemployment and problems of finance. The problems look pretty much like what are affecting numerous other countries, and the Finance Ministry's proposals are as complicated and controversial as those offered elsewhere.
That did not stop Olmert from weighing in from Washington with the news that he has his own program of economic reform. This makes him the third or fourth politician adding to the problems of dealing with the economy in the midst of a national election campaign.
Olmert is not running for anything. He has talked about a political comeback, but first he has to deal with the results of ongoing police investigations, including two issues where the police have already recommended indictments.
It is hard to avoid the conclusion that the prime minister is doing everything he can to spoil the chances of party colleagues who did not rally to his defense in the face of all those charges.
Livni, for her part, is either biding her time for the right opportunity to blast the prime minister, and assert her own course toward the election, or is simply dithering.
It she is dithering, it will not be the first time she has been accused of being indecisive. In the language of her critics, and even friendly doubters, the question being asked is, Does she have what it takes to be prime minister?
Livni has distanced herself from Olmert, but so far not with the force of a competitor fighting a threat to her future and that of her party. She has said that she does not agree with his postures with respect to the Palestinians, i.e., proposing details of territorial compromise and the numbers of refugees from 1948 that Israel will accept within its borders. She has also said that she disagrees with Olmert's willingness to offer concessions publicly prior to agreements that include concessions from the other side.
One cannot quarrel with the substance of Livni's comments, but they have not been strong enough to stop Olmert from continuing to operate as if he has a mandate to manage the country's international relations, defense, and economics.
What can she do?
Not a great deal.
She is in a trap where Olmert is likely to be the prime minister until the election on February 10th, and then for another month or so while the victor works to assemble a multi-party coalition. Insofar as the campaign has already started, the Attorney General is not likely to speed up police investigations about several criminal suspicions against Olmert, and then his own decisions about which are weighty enough to justify an indictment. Deliberations on such matters in the case of a ranking politician are likely to be more complex, and slower than decisions about bringing a run of the mill pickpocket or swindler before the judges.
To speed up such processes now, and reach a quick decision would open the Attorney General to charges of political interference. His office is professional, rather than elected or subject to the whim of a single politician. He has considerable discretion according to the law, but he, too, has been accused of being excessively deliberate, or even timid.
So Olmert is free to make noise, and position himself somewhere outside the boundaries of what his party colleagues prefer with respect to crucial issues of international negotiations and economic repair.
He is not likely to have a lasting impact, other than on the chances of his party to win the upcoming election. A prime minister's initiatives gain considerable media attention, perhaps even more so in the bizarre case of a crippled duck making some of his last statements before facing indictments on criminal charges. To actually create policy he requires the assent of majorities of other ministers in his government, and--depending on the issue--relevant committees in the Knesset or the entire Knesset.
Olmert is not likely to get those agreements.
We have heard of gallows humor. Olmert seems to be playing gallows politics.
Ira Sharkansky (Emeritus)
Department of Political Science
Hebrew University of Jerusalem
Home tel: 972-2-532-2725
Cell phone: 054-683-5325