A day after he announced he would quit the premiership following the September 17 Kadima primary, Ehud Olmert seemed surprisingly entrenched in the Prime Minister's Office on Thursday. This is because it now appears increasingly unlikely that whoever wins that Kadima race will be able to form a new coalition. Olmert, therefore, could well remain head of a caretaker government holding power until after a spring 2009 general election - unless, that is, he is indicted before then.
"It is problematic to form a government after our political system has broken down," said Vice Premier Haim Ramon, who is close to Olmert. "The political arena has gone into a dramatic tailspin, and it will be very difficult to stabilize."
Olmert opponents in Kadima even suggested that Wednesday's emotional press conference, in which he ruled out running for another stint as Kadima chairman, might even have been a maneuver intended to let him last longer as prime minister. Olmert knew full well that his successor would not be able to form a government, they said.
Still, the two front-runners in the race, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz, both expressed confidence that they would be able to form a government when they spoke to the press during their respective visits to the United States on Thursday.
"I call upon every party interested in being part of the agenda [of peace and security] to join the government to represent these interests and to put aside the internal calculations over whether elections are better now or later," Livni told reporters at the United Nations in New York.
She also said that Israel would continue working to reach a peace deal with the Palestinians this year, as was outlined at the Annapolis conference last November.
"We have made efforts this year to reach an agreement with the Palestinians and we will continue to do so," she said.
However, Palestinian Authority officials said Thursday that Olmert's decision to step down meant the chances of an agreement between Israel and the Palestinians before the end of this year were non-existent.
Mofaz said in radio interviews from Washington that a general election now would be detrimental to Israel's interests and that MKs inside and outside the government agreed with him.
"The chances of a [new] coalition being assembled are pretty good," he told Army Radio. "The members of the current coalition wish to preserve it, and I think that under my leadership more members will join. I wish to assemble a national unity government and a national emergency government that will be as broad as possible."
Kadima ministers and MKs will spend the weekend making final decisions on whom to endorse in the Kadima leadership race that began in earnest on Wednesday when Olmert announced he was not a candidate.
Several ministers and MKs said they were waiting for Livni and Mofaz to return from America, because they wanted to tell them their decisions in person before revealing them to the public.
Some lawmakers said Livni or Mofaz called them from the US to ask for their support.
The top Kadima figures Livni and Mofaz are fighting over include Ramon, Knesset Speaker Dalia Itzik, Finance Minister Ronnie Bar-On, Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee Chairman Tzahi Hanegbi and Negev and Galilee Development Minister Ya'acov Edri.
"I first want to sit with both Livni and Mofaz on Sunday and then announce my endorsement," Edri said. "I will tell everyone. I have nothing to hide."
Opposition leader Binyamin Netanyahu ruled out joining a government led by any Kadima MK before a general election. All the candidates had contributed to a "string of failures" by the government, he said.
"The only responsible thing to do is to go to elections," Netanyahu said. "It's wrong to let the Kadima members decide who the next prime minister will be, and not the people. I support forming a national unity government after the election and not now, when it would merely extend the life of a government that the people don't support by putting it on artificial respiration."