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.

The first scenario was always unlikely because with Kadima occupying the Israeli political center, there was little chance that opponents on the Left and Right would ever agree to unite behind a candidate to replace him. Moreover, given that Olmert inherited Sharon's essentially dictatorial powers within Kadima, he could easily fend off an internal challenge.

As for the possibility of the Knesset disbanding itself, Israel's suicide rate is one of the world's lowest, and its political class is no exception. When the Knesset points a gun to its own head, rest assured it contains blanks.

This is how a man who throughout most of his tenure could only dream of President Bush's current approval rating survived in office for over two years despite conducting what was widely perceived as a failed war and facing a slew of corruption allegations.

But when the latest allegations forced his key coalition ally, Ehud Barak, to demand a timetable for his ouster, the balls Olmert had been juggling in the air came crashing down. Seeing his political demise and a possible indictment as imminent, Olmert chose to leave with some dignity.

Shaul Mofaz, the former IDF chief of staff and defense minister, and Tzipi Livni, the current foreign minister, are the leading candidates to replace him. To take the reins of state, they will have to achieve two things. First, win Kadima's September 17 primary. Second, form a governing coalition.

The latest polls give Livni an edge in the first but the veteran pols give Mofaz an edge in the second, and that may prove far more important to the outcome of this race. For if a coalition cannot be formed, elections would be triggered, with a resurgent Benjamin Netanyahu waiting in the wings.

Polls suggest that Mofaz would stand no chance against Netanyahu today while Livni might. But more importantly, many of Kadima's current Knesset members are unlikely to be reelected to the next Knesset. With the next mandated elections not until November 2010, they and the many Kadima primary voters they have registered are looking for the person who can keep the gravy train afloat for two more years. For his part, Barak knows he will be trounced in elections and will likely join any coalition to keep them at bay.

If Livni is hoping her popularity in the general public and her value in a potential election will win her the support of Kadima primary voters, she is probably mistaken. With the legacy of its founder tarnished by over 4,000 Hamas rockets and with the collapse of the unilateral approach that was its raison d'etre into Israeli politics, Kadima is about power and power alone. For such a party, the certainty of power today is always more intoxicating than the promise of power tomorrow.

The low political suicide rate in Israel should once again prove decisive. To win, the more popular Livni must show not that she can win an election but that she can avoid one.