Israeli Leaders Furiously Jostle for Position

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's announcement last week that he will not stand in his party's upcoming primaries has shifted the usually frenetic Israeli political system into even higher gear. A quick review of how it got to this point may help explain where the Israeli electoral process is headed.

At the end of 2005, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, though immensely popular among the general public, faced a serious rebellion in his own Likud party over the unilateral disengagement from Gaza. His pesky opponents had the temerity to question the wisdom of a leader who had gained office by pledging not to flee in the face of terror and then proceeded to do just that.

Sharon's answer was to form Kadima (Hebrew for "forward"). He hoped to break the Israeli political deadlock by staking sole claim to the political center and pressing forward with his unilateral approach. His party would include both former Likud leaders and key members of Labor, most prominently current Israeli President Shimon Peres. Particularly useful in his effort to reshuffle the Israeli political deck -- something others had previously tried and failed to do -- was the cult of personality that a leftist press had helped create around a longtime leader of the Right who was both willing and able to make sweeping territorial concessions.

Everything was proceeding according to plan. The polls showed his party winning over a third of Israel's 120-seat Knesset. Then, suddenly, Sharon had a stroke and was incapacitated.

Members of his new party, fearful of a tailspin in the middle of an election campaign, quickly rallied around Sharon's deputy, the talented and shrewd former mayor of Jerusalem, Ehud Olmert. Though Kadima was losing steam with each passing week, the image of an almost deified Sharon provided enough gas to get Olmert over the finish line.

Ostensibly weak politically -- Kadima won 29 Knesset seats -- and unpopular among the wider Israeli public, Prime Minister Olmert had a couple of things working in his favor that would prove critical. In Israel's Byzantine political system, there are primarily two ways to topple a government. First, 61 members of Israel's Knesset can at any time throw support behind another member of the Knesset and enable him or her to form a government. Second, the Knesset can vote to disband itself and thereby force new elections.