Despite his troubles, Ehud Olmert continues to hang on.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy, center, clasps the hands of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, left, and Israeli
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in Paris on July 13.
Jewish Telegraphic Agency
year into his troubled term as
prime minister, Ehud Olmert
told a French newspaper he was
That was in May 2007 — before a
scathing report on Olmert's handling of
the inconclusive 2006 war in Lebanon
with Hezbollah, a protracted face-off with
Hamas in the Gaza Strip, the disclosure of
his prostate cancer and a corruption scan-
dal that has rattled the prime minister's
already restive coalition government.
Still, Olmert remains in power, appar-
ently set on proving he is one of Israel's
great political survivors.
Though grayer and looking wearier
than when he stepped in for his stricken
predecessor, Ariel Sharon, in January 2006,
the 62-year-old marathon runner still acts
like an incumbent certain of re-election,
despite approval ratings in the low double
Commentators attribute Olmert's resil-
ience to his career of more than three
decades in the Knesset, which trained
him in tough parliamentary power plays.
Though he lacks the military pedigree of
many former generals who took Israel's top
office, paradoxically this may have prompt-
ed Olmert to delegate key security roles
while assuming a more Olympian overview.
Defying pundits who predicted he
would go public with the target of Israel's
air strike in Syria last September for the
sake of a popularity payoff, Olmert instead
let America's Central Intelligence Agency
publicize findings that Damascus had been
building a secret nuclear reactor.
"The word in the IDF and the intel-
ligence services is that Olmert knows how
to authorize action and press ahead;' one
senior Israeli security source said on con-
dition of anonymity. "He's a CEO rather
than some old warrior who has to knuckle
down on every detail and exult in every
Olmert may also benefit from a per-
ceived absence of worthy rivals in a coun-
try fed up with deadlocked peace talks and
While opinion polls show opposition
leader Benjamin Netanyahu winning an
election were it held today, and Defense
Minister Ehud Barak beating out Olmert,
the vote is still a ways off.
Satirist Yair Lapid noted that Israelis
"both want a new type of politics and
deliberate between voting for either the
former prime minister or the former-for-
mer-prime minister," referring to Barak
The tension between Netanyahu and
Barak apparently allowed Olmert to sur-
vive a threatened schism in his coalition
Barak, who leads the Labor Party and
has stepped up his criticism of Olmert
since new bribery allegations against the
prime minister in May, had pledged to
back a Knesset bill to dissolve parliament.
Olmert, the Kadima Party's leader,
brandished both carrot and stick. First he
threatened to fire Labor from the govern-
ment, and then he satisfied Barak's call
for reform by pledging to hold a Kadima
primary — in which Olmert could, in
theory, be toppled by party rivals — by
Barak backed down — or, in the words
of one Ma'ariv columnist, et his pants."
A Kadima-Labor split would have
brought on early elections, effectively giv-
ing Netanyahu's right-wing Likud the gov-
ernment, polls show.
Though Olmert won another few
months' reprieve, that could disappear if
there are further developments in the cor-
ruption case involving American financier
Talansky has testified that he gave
Olmert more than $150,000 in cash hand-
outs and unpaid loans over the course of
nearly a decade and a half before Olmert
became prime minister. Should Attorney
General Menachem Mazuz find sufficient
evidence of bribery, he will order an indict-
ment of the prime minister. Olmert has
promised to resign if charged.
But Olmert has denied all wrongdoing in
the case and hopes his lawyers will be able
to demolish Talansky in cross-examination
scheduled for July 17 in open court.
Should Talansky's credibility be shaken,
polls suggest, Olmert might win the
Kadima primary and remain the party's
head — beating back such challeng-
ers as Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and
Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz.
That would mean another reprieve. But
To be remembered well, and to win
another term as prime minister, Olmert
may need to achieve something spectacu-
Though Olmert has relaunched peace
talks with the Palestinian Authority and
Syria, signed a cease-fire agreement with
Hamas and made overtures to Lebanon,
it may take a diplomatic miracle to secure
a real achievement on any of these fronts
over the course of the next few months.
Then there is the looming threat of
Iran's nuclear program and the Israeli pre-
emptive strike it may invite. Olmert was
nearly destroyed politically by the relatively
limited Lebanon war; a much more fateful
conflict with Iran would be a make-or-
break point for his career.
"Ehud Olmert believes that in the
months that he has left, he will succeed in
producing a document with the Syrians
or with Abu Mazen," wrote veteran Israeli
columnist Nahum Barnea in the daily
Yediot Achronot, using the nickname for
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud
Abbas. "He will have a lever with which to
raise himself, a legacy to look back upon.
"His faith in his strength is laudable
Barnea wrote. "Like the frog who was about
to drown in a bucket of cream, he kicks his
legs vigorously, hoping that the cream will
turn into butter."
July 17 • 2008