Thursday, May 29, 2008

Waiting for Livni?

You know Ehud Olmert's political days are numbered when the only people appearing on radio and television to say a good word about him are the lawyers in his employ.

The political wisdom in Israel is that the premier cannot possibly carry on in the wake of the coverage of the Morris Talansky deposition in Jerusalem District Court on Tuesday. Polls show that 70% of Israelis do not believe Olmert's protestations that not one penny he took from Talansky went into his own pocket.

But even those who believe him or don't know what to believe must surely be scratching their heads wondering what sort of man would ask a political acquaintance to rescue him from the indignity of flying business class when seats were to be had in first class, from the ignominy of a luxury hotel room when a suite was to be had. They will wonder about his apparent sence of entitlement. They will reflect about how different his lifestyle is from theirs.

And even they will loose patience with him.

Yet, having survived the Winnograd Commission report which exposed his government's mis-handling of the Second Lebanon War, and having held on as one perturbing legal investigation after another raised questions about personal and professional probity – let's do not discount the possibility that our tenacious prime minister will try to hang on a while longer.

He says he will only resign if indicted. In the interim, he will want to hold on until July when his lawyers will have the opportunity to cross-examine the magnanimous Mr. Talansky.

His attorneys will remind us that Ehud Olmert has not even been indicted, much less been tried and convicted.
All this is true, but none of it really matters.

There is a strong sense – across the political spectrum -- that Israel needs another prime minister. Not in July. Not if this one is indicted. But as soon as is pratical.

That is why, for the good of the country Ehud Olmert must go.

On Wednesday, Defense Minister and Labor Party leader Ehud Barak finally climbed off the fence. At a brief afternoon news conference in the Knesset, Barak called on Olmert to leave. He cited a number of the difficult security challenges facing Israel: the Palestinian front; the issue of IDF captives in enemy hands; the burgeoning threat from Hizbullah-controlled Lebanon and the menace posed by Iran.

Even without his referencing the more “mundane” domestic agenda, Barak is right that Israel simply cannot afford a part-time prime minister who finds himself diverted by the extraneous issue of keeping himself out of prison.

BARAK CALLED on the governing Kadima Party to choose a replacement from within its ranks as soon as possible. This seems me like a reasonable interim approach.

After all, Israelis do not vote for a prime minister but for a party. In the Knesset elections held two years ago, Kadima's the top slots were held by Olmert, Shimon Peres, Tzipi Livni and Meir Sheetrit. With Peres now in the President's House, the likely candidate to replace Olmert is the foreign minister.

Polls show that almost a third of Israelis think she would be a suitable prime minister – which ties her with Likud Party leader Binyamin Netanyahu. Only 15% of citizens think Barak would make the most suitable leader. Shaul Mofez, Kadima's No. 8 comes in with 16% and Sheetrit currently polls hardly any support at all.

Now it is indeed up to Kadima to move promptly in selecting a new leader. My doubts about whether she has the fire in the belly necessary for the job notwithstanding, the party would be reflecting popular sentiment if it selects Tzipi Livni. Of all of the likely contenders for the leadership she has two qualities sorely needed: popularity and a clean police record.

Were lineage a determinative factor, it does not hurt that the her father, Eitan Livni, was a leader of the Jabotinsky movement. Yesterday, at memorial for Irgun commander David Raziel she referened the Olmert scandals by remarking that "The state has a vision and values which obligate its citizens and also its leaders."

At least on paper, Livni is the kind of pragmatic centrist many Israelis would like to see at the helm.

Israelis have become used to leaders who do a lot of swaggering, brim with self-confidence, allude to their military accomplishments and display no small amount of arrogance. Livni would make for a different kind of premier altogether.

She has a Hamlet-like indecisiveness that is troubling.

It is anyway premature to talk about what Livni should do or about how soon she should commit to holding new elections if she takes over. But one thing is clear, the sooner Ehud Olmert leaves the stage and someone of Livni's caliber takes charge the better.

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