It's one of Washington's worst kept secrets: President Barack Obama's administration would prefer Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to lose the Israeli elections in January 2013. Netanyahu is not only too hawkish on the Palestinian issue and Iran for the White House's comfort, he has the added burden of a fraught personal relationship with Obama -- cemented by his perceived public endorsement of Mitt Romney in the U.S. presidential election.
In theory, a Netanyahu defeat is not beyond the
realm of possibility. He is popular in Israel but not loved, trusted as prime
minister but not revered. His
in the polls is steady -- essentially undisturbed since he took
office in 2009 -- but not overwhelming. He appears to have suffered somewhat
from the inconclusive outcome of the recent military operation in Gaza --
though if he lost any votes, they were to the right rather than the center,
meaning that his electoral bloc remains intact. Among his biggest assets
is a lack of viable alternatives: The leaders of the two largest parties in the
current opposition are either too unpopular (Kadima's Shaul Mofaz) or too
inexperienced (Labor's Shelly Yacimovich) to credibly challenge him.
Little wonder, therefore, that eyes have been fixed
on potential new entrants to the political arena -- or, as is often the case in
Israeli politics, recycled entrants. The
return of former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has been the most anticipated of these
political earthquakes: Merely four years after leaving office under indictment for corruption
charges (of which he was largely acquitted, pending appeal) Olmert appears to
be the only man capable of mounting a serious challenge to Netanyahu. In
truth, however, his chances of defeating Netanyahu remain lower than wishful
thinkers in Washington may like to believe. His imminent announcement on
whether he runs is therefore unlikely to alter the outcome of the elections.
case for an Olmert candidacy has been threefold. First, he has the gravitas and
experience that no other opposition leader offers. Although his premiership was
marred by public criticism of his leadership in the 2006 Lebanon war
(culminating in the Winograd Commission report), he remains one of the most
experienced leaders in the Israeli political system. He has led Israel to war
in Gaza, like Netanyahu, and handled the country's most tightly held strategic
secrets. In contrast to other opposition leaders --
journalists-turned-politicians Yacimovich or Yair Lapid of the newly formed
Yesh Atid ("There is a Future") party -- he can credibly challenge Netanyahu on
the national security front.
can also use his foreign affairs experience to capitalize on Netanyahu's
electoral vulnerabilities. Olmert maintained a close relationship with the
United States during his term, a clear shortcoming of Netanyahu in the wake of
Obama's reelection. On dealing with the Iranian nuclear program, Olmert enjoys
the trust and support of many in the security establishment, in contrast to the near revolt against
Netanyahu's leadership by several former security chiefs. Unlike Netanyahu, Olmert provides a clear vision
for trying to resolve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, and negotiated in
earnest with Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas. Though the Israeli public is
highly skeptical of the chances of peace in the near future, it remains supportive, in theory, of a two-state
that may be true, but it will count for nothing if Olmert can't forge a
governing majority in the Knesset. The second argument for Olmert running has
been, accordingly, that he alone has the ability to forge post-election
alliances with members of Netanyahu's right-wing/religious bloc. And yet, this
argument was less convincing from the start.
true that Olmert, a politician of considerable wit and charm, maintains close
relationships with many figures who are now in Netanyahu's camp. One of them is Aryeh Der'i, a leader of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, who
himself returned to politics after serving a prison sentence for bribery. Another
is Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman -- a leader who offers a mix of
inflammatory, nearly xenophobic, rhetoric, but appears pragmatic on some issues
of substance. Both Der'i and Lieberman have joined centrist coalitions in the
past -- and some assumed Olmert could lure them away from Netanyahu's
while Olmert's political skill sets him apart from other opposition leaders, it
does not provide him a path to victory on its own. There are significant
political obstacles in splitting Netanyahu's allies from him: Der'i, for his
part, shares his party's leadership with the ultra-hawkish Eli Yishai, and the
final say in Shas belongs to Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the 92-year old patron of the
party. Shas's electorate, moreover, is firmly right-wing and clearly prefers
Netanyahu to any centrist candidate. Nor would Lieberman opt for a centrist
government if given the choice, as he proved by forming a pre-election alliance
with Netanyahu. For both Shas and Lieberman, a centrist coalition would be palatable
only if a right-wing coalition is numerically impossible. In other words, to
win the post-election coalition building, Olmert would have to beat Netanyahu
in the ballot box.
third and final argument in favor of Olmert running was that he could
potentially steal the votes of moderate right-wing voters. There's some logic
to the idea: Given Netanyahu's shift to
the right through his electoral
Lieberman and the very
right-wing list produced this week in the primaries of his Likud
party, there appears to be room
in the center for a serious challenge.
If enough moderate right-wing voters find the Likud's right-wing shift
too distasteful, they may
prefer a moderate like Olmert.
if Olmert could attract enough right-wing voters to the center, bringing
Netanyahu's bloc below 60 (of 120) Knesset members, all bets would be off on
the coalition building process. Polling, however, has not been kind to this theory: The right-wing
bloc has appeared poised to win around 65 seats throughout the campaign, and the
result was not much changed when surveys asked about a hypothetical Olmert run. Nevertheless, an Olmert-led centrist
coalition remains the only plausible path to a Netanyahu defeat.
even if Olmert were to announce his intention to run, his legal troubles may
still come back to haunt him. The State Prosecutor's office has announced that it will appeal his partial
acquittal. A court decision on a separate corruption case against him is still
pending, and legal challenge would likely be mounted against his appointment as
prime minister even if he were to win the elections. Many voters on the
center-left, moreover, will find Olmert's legal troubles unsavory (even in his
partial acquittal, the judges' language in describing Olmert's actions was harsh).
Yacimovich has already attacked Olmert on this front, saying that anyone who backs his
political return "supports the destruction of the [political] system."
in other words, remains the heavy favorite to form the next Israeli government
regardless of the jockeying in the center. And yet, despite these obstacles, Olmert has been eager to return to the
political game. He knows well the cardinal rule of Israeli politics articulated
by Ariel Sharon -- himself, once a disgraced minister of defense who climbed
his way back to the top of Israel's leadership. Israeli politics, Sharon noted,
are like a Ferris Wheel: Sometimes you find yourself on top and sometime below,
but the trick is to stay on the wheel. Olmert himself, one should remember, first
ascended to the prime minister's office in unlikely circumstances, after it was
thrust upon him following Sharon's debilitating stroke.
Olmert decide to re-enter the political game, we will be in for a contentious,
perhaps dramatic campaign. Those in Washington
hoping for a Netanyahu defeat, however, are likely to be disappointed.
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