Before we warn Olmert to avoid allowing the door to slam behind him, we should remember something: there is a good chance the prime minister will remain in office for rather longer than many people might like. If the next leader of Kadima fails to put together a coalition after the September 17 primaries, which could very well happen, then there will be general elections. Since elections could take place as late as March 2009, Olmert might be with us for another eight months. Meanwhile, as prime minister he has immunity in the face of criminal prosecution which, as the police acknowledge, complicates their investigation.
So what could possibly have compelled Mr. Olmert to say goodbye at last? He refused to resign when his approval ratings hovered around 3 percent for months after the Second Lebanon War. He ignored the political backstabbing from within his own coalition. He was unmoved when prominent author Meir Shalev, speaking at a massive protest gathering in Rabin Square after the release of the Interim Winograd Report, said, “Ehud Olmert, remember when you said you work for us? Well, Mr. Olmert, you are fired!”
So why now, just after his lawyers succeeded in making Talansky look so bad?
According to a prominent Israeli political affairs reporter, the reports about Olmert’s corruption leaked so far are just the tiniest tip of the iceberg. In response to my observation that Israeli politicians are so corrupt that it often seems as though the country is run by Tammany Hall, he said, “If you think this is just another case of petty corruption — like Bibi allowing a rich London Jew to finance his hotel stay — then you could not be more wrong. The man is unbelievably corrupt, from top to bottom.”
When I repeated this remark to a former senior employee of the prime minister’s office, he responded with a cynical shrug and a telling anecdote about something Olmert did when he was minister of Health. At the time, a wealthy businessman friend of Olmert’s purchased the license to import a popular product that was marketed in the United States as an aid to weight loss. But Israeli ministry of health regulations forbade labeling the product as a weight loss aid, which meant it was unlikely to achieve high sales. To help his friend, Olmert allegedly changed three different regulations, thus making it possible to label the product as a weight loss aid.
Come September, Kadima will choose a new leader from the following candidates: Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni; Minister of Security (and former head of the Shin Bet) Avi Dichter; and Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz (former IDF Chief of Staff).
Tzipi Livni is known for her integrity, but lacks experience in coalition building. Avi Dichter lacks experience in foreign affairs and in domestic politics. Shaul Mofaz failed the officer’s examination several times when he was in the IDF; he is known as a man lacking in both humor and compassion — as well as experience. Benjamin (Bibi) Netanyahu, the head of the Likud Party, was widely considered one of the worst prime ministers in Israel’s history when he was voted out of office in 1999. Unfortunately his replacement, Labor party leader Ehud Barak, managed to trump Bibi in the disastrous leadership department.
Which leaves many of us wondering gloomily: is there anyone to fill the leadership vacuum in Israeli politics?