olmert cabinet 224.88.
(photo credit: AP)
Sure, we've been through this movie before. A leak from the police, Justice Ministry or an investigative committee; headlines screaming that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is toast; and reports that in the upper-reaches of Kadima and Labor, discussions are taking place about how to keep the government going, or not, in a post-Olmert environment.
This time though, things are different. If rumors reaching journalists' ears about the details of the new investigation against the prime minister, still under gag-order, are correct, then this latest charge is indeed more serious - or the direct evidence more substantial - than in any previous case.
Even if that isn't necessarily the case, it is the timing of this revelation that makes it more problematic for the government.
Not the immediate timing - Olmert will still be here in a few days' time to kick off the 60th anniversary celebrations and later greet US President George W. Bush and the other dignitaries due here in the course of the next two weeks.
But beyond that, his future looks far murkier. That's because this time, a scandal is breaking past the halfway mark of his term in office, when his coalition partners must already be looking ahead to face an electorate as part of a government few believe will in any case survive to its official expiration date in 2010.
Both Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Defense Minister Ehud Barak have twice before backed down after putting themselves out on a limb in calling for Olmert to step aside. For Livni, it was after her dramatic press conference last May following the release of the Winograd Committee's interim conclusion on the Second Lebanon War.
For Barak, the moment of truth - or untruth - also came a year ago, when he replaced Amir Peretz as Labor leader after also having previously called for Olmert's resignation in his Sdot Yam statement.
At that time, with the support of other Kadima leaders, the prime minister emerged as the winner in a game of high-stakes chicken with Livni and Barak, gambling that neither would risk either bringing the government down and spurring new elections, or freezing themselves out of top ministerial seats for the foreseeable future.
He was right - as were they, politically, in reversing course, with polls clearly showing Binyamin Netanyahu's Likud with a substantial lead in any new ballot, and neither Livni nor Barak having much to show voters in the way of accomplishment. By staying in the government for "the good of the nation," the foreign and defense ministers also reckoned they might gain at least some time in rehabilitating the damage done their reputations by failing to show enough political courage to resign over the Winograd conclusions.
Time has proven that latter strategy correct. The final Winograd Report, by proving less severe regarding Olmert's culpability than expected, helped to vindicate their unwillingness to bring down the government over the prime minister's handling of the war.
What's more, both are now able to point to some achievements gained during the past year. Livni, considered the strongest supporter among Kadima leaders of a renewed peace process with the Palestinians, can claim some credit for the post-Annapolis negotiations in which she is playing a significant role.
Barak, aided by the recent revelations made in the US Congress about last September's Israeli air strike on an alleged Syrian nuclear reactor, will also be ready to reclaim the "Mr. Security" mantle tarnished by the outbreak of the second intifada during his last months in office as prime minister.
Whether any of this would actually be of help in an upcoming election to substantially cut into a Likud lead is highly questionable. Although the polls have shown a tightening race in recent months, credit for that has been given more to Netanyahu's missteps than any growing public confidence in Livni and Barak.
Still, early elections don't pose quite the threat to the latter two they once did, giving them a stronger bargaining hand this time around if Olmert's legal woes truly turn into political poison in the coming weeks.
A more ideal outcome for Livni and Barak would probably be an Olmert resignation followed by the setting up of some kind of interim government headed by them, that would provide both with more time for further policy achievements.
For the foreign minister, this might be the advancement of the Palestinian negotiations toward a so-called "shelf-agreement" of a final-status solution to be implemented by a succeeding government; for the defense minister, a halt in the attacks by Hamas either through a cease-fire or Gaza military operation, and a concurrent release of hostage IDF soldier Cpl. Gilad Schalit.
Of course, such a scenario would require Livni and Barak agreeing with each other as to who gets to sit in the Prime Minister's Office until the next elections, as well as support in their own factions and from at least one coalition partner sufficient to keep the government going.
Livni faces a far bigger problem in this regard than Barak, whose position as Labor leader is more secure for the moment due to a lack of serious contenders. Not so for the foreign minister: At least three of her fellow Kadima cabinet ministers - Shaul Mofaz, Avi Dichter, and Meir Sheetrit - see themselves as viable successors to Olmert as faction leader and might be willing to challenge for the right in a party primary, even at the risk of bringing down the government. That trio, and perhaps others in Kadima, might well gamble that even in new elections in which Netanyahu emerged triumphant, they would still emerge with senior cabinet positions in a coalition government headed by Likud.
As for Olmert himself, he has no personal reason to do other than he has done in the past, and that is hang on at all costs to the Prime Minister's Office in which he landed two years ago largely due to a series of circumstances - the Likud-Kadima split and Ariel Sharon's stroke - which no one could have predicted. At age 62, there can be no second chances for him if he takes even a temporary break from political life, after serving as the most unpopular prime minister in the state's history.
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