Politics: Fending off the competition

The Knesset reconvenes on Monday with all the trimmings of a political tempest, but with little parliamentary opposition to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

October 4, 2007 19:18
after winograd speaks to defend himself

Olmert 298.88. (photo credit: AP)

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert will deliver an address on Monday to open the six-month winter session of the Knesset, which under normal circumstances would be stormy. Nearly all the climatic conditions necessary for a political tempest are there: key votes on the state budget and electoral reforms, a prime minister facing multiple criminal investigations and a November summit with Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas at which fateful decisions about Israel's future borders could be made. But one crucial element appears to be missing - significant parliamentary opposition to the prime minister. Unlike former prime minister Ehud Barak, who went to Camp David with a crumbling minority coalition, Olmert will go to Annapolis, Maryland, with what seems to be a rock solid majority behind him. All of the potential candidates to be his primary political adversary have thus far been reluctant to take the mantle and the responsibility upon themselves in a serious way. Likud chairman Binyamin Netanyahu, who formally holds the title of opposition leader, admitted on national television that he advised Olmert regarding the strike in Syria that resuscitated the prime minister in the polls. Olmert's associates have bragged about his cordial relationship with the opposition leader and said that Netanyahu would have already joined the cabinet if his Likud faction had let him. Netanyahu will try to recreate himself as a fiery Olmert critic with his first speech to the Knesset following Olmert's. He intends to use the speech to start a pressure campaign on Shas chairman Eli Yishai and Israel Beiteinu leader Avigdor Lieberman to remove their parties from the coalition. "We will act with full force as a fighting opposition," a source close to Netanyahu vowed. "The Olmert government is doing everything possible to put the public to sleep and sneak by with a dangerous diplomatic plan that will allow missiles to be fired upon the center of the country, but we won't let it happen." Likud faction chairman Gideon Sa'ar asked Attorney-General Menahem Mazuz to require Olmert to bring his diplomatic plan to the Knesset for approval before he leaves for the US. Sa'ar said the Likud's ability to threaten Olmert was limited by the small size of the 12-man faction. "We warned the voters before the election that other right-wing parties would join the coalition," he said. "The main difference between us and them is that we believe what's been printed in the papers about Olmert's concessions and they're still in denial. Olmert is playing a double-game right now, telling Abbas and Lieberman different things, but he will have to decide by November which one he was telling the truth." ISRAEL BEITEINU and Shas have given no indications that they will threaten the stability of the coalition any time soon. Lieberman said this week that the November summit was "just a declaration." Next Wednesday, his party's central committee will approve its "red lines" for the summit, drafted by MK Yisrael Hasson, which will grant Olmert wide leeway to make sweeping concessions. Shas has gone out its way to repair its image as a serial initiator of coalition crises. Olmert's associates have recently downplayed the summit in talks with Shas officials, calling it "not much more than a photo-op." Labor is even less of a problem for Olmert. Party leader Ehud Barak has gradually shifted his target date for the next election from May 2008 to some time in 2009. Labor has fallen five seats in the polls and if the numbers do not improve, Barak could start pushing for the election to be delayed indefinitely. Olmert's situation in Kadima improved significantly over the summer. His most vocal critic in the party, former coalition chairman Avigdor Yitzhaki, intends to quit the Knesset next month after revealing that his hopes of forcing Olmert to quit had diminished due to his recent rise in popularity and Labor MK Ami Ayalon's decision to join the cabinet. The potential for a rebellion inside Kadima lost steam primarily because of the reluctance of a minister to lead it. Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni has positioned herself to the right of Olmert ideologically in recent months, but she has been a loyal soldier since she harmed herself politically by calling for him to quit after the release of the interim Winograd report without quitting herself. Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz, who could be Olmert's most serious challenger inside Kadima, may take steps inside the party to expedite its leadership race, but he is not ready yet to undertake such a risky maneuver. WITHOUT SERIOUS opposition from Netanyahu, Lieberman, Shas, Barak, Yitzhaki, Livni or Mofaz, who will lead the opposition to Olmert? The events this week indicated that it could be an unlikely candidate. President Shimon Peres and Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi surprised Olmert with their efforts to prevent the release of Palestinian prisoners to the Gaza Strip. Few expected Peres to work against the prime minister from the right. State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss and Finance Ministry Accountant-General Yaron Zelekha have been Olmert's most annoying adversaries, but Zelekha is on his way out, and Lindenstrauss is limited to making recommendations to Mazuz. Olmert's fate is in the hands of the police, who are notorious for working very slowly. Insp.-Gen. David Cohen's blessing of Olmert in his succa on Sunday - that he should have a long political life - could ease his fears that the investigations against him could force him to leave the Prime Minister's Office prematurely. The most likely scenario is that the main headaches in the Knesset for Olmert will end up coming from political gadflies like Labor MK Ophir Paz-Pines, Kadima MK Marina Solodkin and Gil Pensioners Party MK Moshe Sharoni. If Olmert feared more serious parliamentary problems, he would not have appointed a political lightweight like MK Eli Aflalo to the key post of coalition chairman. Aflalo said he expected to devote most of his efforts to passing the budget. He said that neither he nor Olmert knew whether the diplomatic process would advance enough in the next six months to require a vote in the Knesset, but that at least until then, Olmert's political situation would remain "comfortable." "I don't see anyone causing Olmert problems," Aflalo said. "The opposition does its job. Can the opposition do anything dramatic? I can't say, but I know our coalition is stable and I will do whatever is necessary to keep it that way. Whether it will be easy or hard, time will tell."

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