Politics: What he leaves behind

The PM's announcement that he'll quit in September sets off a leadership battle in Kadima - and a personal one for the purpose of crafting a positive legacy.

Olmert im going home  (photo credit: AP)
Olmert im going home
(photo credit: AP)
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's advisers told the same anecdote to every political reporter in the country on Wednesday night after Olmert announced that he would quit the premiership following the September 17 Kadima leadership race. The Hebrew press spun it on the pages of Thursday's papers. The story goes that Olmert convened his advisers 10 days ago and told them he had decided among three alternatives. He could have opted to quit right away, in the style of former prime minister Menachem Begin, who left the premiership with the infamous words, "I cannot go on anymore." He could have tried to stay as long as possible and only go out kicking and screaming. But instead, he had chosen the middle ground, a move which he said was inspired by former British prime minister Tony Blair. He talked about how Blair left 10 Downing Street amid allegations of corruption only after his party had chosen his replacement and ensured that the government would remain stable. The problem with this analogy is that Blair left office after three successful elections and a decade of service, during most of which he was adored by his people. And unlike Olmert, Blair was not the subject of six criminal investigations. In an official sense, he was not even the subject of one. While Blair was interrogated by police three times amid great fanfare, he was questioned as a witness, not under caution as a suspect. The suspects in the British Labor government's "cash for honors" scandal were Blair's aides, and no charges were ultimately brought in the affair. There were several other scandals during Blair's tenure, most of them financial, but he was not personally implicated in any of them. The attempt to compare himself to Blair is part of Olmert's efforts to craft for himself as positive a legacy as possible under the circumstances. That difficult task, which began with Wednesday's speech, will continue until he leaves office, and there is no better model than Blair, an internationally respected statesman who is reaping the financial rewards of his positive image. A final contrast with Blair is that the changeover to current British Prime Minister Gordon Brown was inevitable, while the Kadima race is open. Olmert vowed not to interfere, but it is assumed in Kadima that he will work behind the scenes to ensure that Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz defeats Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni. WHILE THE conventional wisdom holds that Olmert wants Livni to lose because he despises her, it could actually be to his benefit if she won, because she is seen as the candidate with the least chance of forming a new government. If no new government is formed, Olmert could remain prime minister until after a Spring 2009 general election, remarkably surviving into his fourth year in office. That's why the race could ironically become a win-win situation for Olmert, just as it is a lose-lose situation for opposition leader Binyamin Netanyahu and politicians on the Right, who were careful not to celebrate Olmert's departure prematurely. If Mofaz wins and forms a government, Netanyahu will have to further delay his planned return to the Prime Minister's Office. If Livni wins, polls show that Kadima under her leadership could present a formidable challenge to the Likud in the next election. It would be in the interest of whomever wins the Kadima race to form a government, so he or she could get prime ministerial experience ahead of a general election race against former prime ministers Netanyahu and Ehud Barak. Mofaz has indicated to Shas that he is willing to pay a hefty price to get that experience, but Livni cannot be seen as sacrificing her principles or giving into political extortion. Mofaz's main advantage in the race is the support of Kadima activists who believe that he can form a new coalition and keep the party in power. Livni is expected to receive endorsements from most of the party's MKs, who will back her because polls show she can bring the party the most mandates next time. If those two elements cancel each other out, the deciding factor in the race could end up being which candidate received better advice. Livni's announcement this week that she had hired strategists Reuven Adler and Eyal Arad set up a clash between former prime minister Ariel Sharon's "ranch forum" and internationally renowned strategists Arthur Finkelstein and George Birnbaum, who work for Mofaz. Adler and Arad are reportedly anxious to regain the influence that they enjoyed for many years and that they lost under Olmert. Adler played a key role in Olmert's departure by persuading Barak to insist that Kadima topple Olmert after the initial questioning of American financier Morris Talansky in Olmert's corruption case. In retrospect, it might have been a mistake for Olmert to fire Adler and Arad. But he smartly resisted the temptation to fire Livni from her post as vice prime minister at his press conference, a move he had seriously considered. Olmert also mulled asking President Shimon Peres to dissolve the Knesset to bring down all his adversaries with him. While that move would have made Olmert feel good, and Knesset Speaker Dalia Itzik told him she would have supported it, it would have expedited his departure from the Prime Minister's Office. IN HIS speech, he said that during his remaining time there, he would make an effort to advance the negotiations with the Palestinians and the talks with Syria. While he admits he doesn't have enough time to finish a deal, diplomatic officials revealed that he could decide to draft a document that would list the compromises already reached with the Palestinians during his tenure. Such a document might not bring Israel and the Palestinians closer to peace, but it would accomplish three things. It would bolster his own legacy and that of his close ally, US President George W. Bush, and it could cause great damage to Livni's efforts to attract Kadima members who are right of center. If the Palestinians don't agree to publish a document, a couple of well-placed and timely leaks could do the job just as well. In a Jerusalem campaign rally on Sunday that was closed to the press, Livni expressed concern that the Bush administration could pressure Israel at the end of its term, as she said former president Bill Clinton did at Camp David before he left office. Officials in the White House reportedly protested Livni's remarks. Livni indeed does have reason to be concerned, because Bush is fighting just as much of an uphill battle for his legacy as Olmert. Bush, Olmert and Mideast envoy Blair would all like nothing more than to be remembered for bringing Israel and the Palestinians closer to peace, and not for their lack of success at war. Olmert has four different options for steps that can improve his legacy: a document with the Palestinians or with Syria; bringing home Gilad Schalit alive, or preventing the nuclearization of Iran. None of those would alter the fact that Olmert's political career, which started with him as a young MK fighting corruption, ended with him falling on that same subject. But any significant accomplishment would help Olmert craft a far more positive image and provide a more credible basis for future efforts to compare himself to leaders like Blair.