Politics: Wishing on a star?

As Olmert speeds up his efforts to make history, Kadima ministers scramble to vie for his seat.

Olmert concerned 224.88 (photo credit: AP [file])
Olmert concerned 224.88
(photo credit: AP [file])
The corridors of the Knesset on Wednesday were full of politicians debating whether Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was trying to distract the public by revealing the diplomatic talks between Israel and Syria on the same day that the most damning evidence against him in the Morris Talansky case was revealed. Politicians from across the spectrum accused Olmert of trying to spin the news away from the investigations, as he and other political leaders have often done before. The few politicians who defended Olmert said the decisions to initiate the talks - and on when to reveal them - were made before anyone had heard of Talansky. But on one thing all the politicians agreed: Whether or not the announcement was intended as spin, it clearly worked. A prime minister who over the last few weeks was seen as a walking political cadaver - who only heard praise when he was alone in a room - received resounding applause when he told a crowd at an educational conference in Tel Aviv that "it's always better to talk than to shoot." The nightly newscasts that would have opened up with reports of Olmert taking massive sums of money from the Long Island businessman instead led with renewed hope for peace with an Arab neighbor. Three Hebrew news dailies all used the same headline on their Thursday front page: "Investigation and Peace" [it rhymes with "War and Peace" in Hebrew], but devoted the overwhelming majority of the page to Syria. Only the right-leaning Yisrael Hayom focused its front page primarily on the evidence against Olmert. Olmert obviously wishes that the corruption cases against him could disappear overnight, but "Investigation and Peace" is certainly better than "Investigation and Investigation." Sources in the state prosecution already leaked on Wednesday night that the Syria talks would not delay the investigations. The information came, of all people, to Amnon Abramowitz, the same Channel 2 commentator who coined the expression that former prime minister Ariel Sharon needed to be "coddled like an etrog [citron]" to ensure that the disengagement from the Gaza Strip would not be stopped by the corruption probes Sharon was facing. But after Attorney-General Menahem Mazuz told Channel 2 on Sunday that the Talansky investigation could take "several months," Olmert does not necessarily need a delay. The pace at which the press's attention shifted from one issue to the other helped Olmert in his effort to achieve his goal of becoming a prime minister who, if he falls, does so on the sword of peace and not on the sword of corruption. Olmert's original plan was to reach a peace deal with the Palestinians by the November election in the United States and then initiate an election, using the deal to try to win support from the Center-Left and destroy Labor in the process. The talks with Syria do not mean that the Palestinian track is dead, but now Olmert has an insurance policy in case Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas decides to gamble by holding out for a new president of the United States more to his liking. Syria has always been there as a backup plan for prime ministers who fail to reach a deal with the Palestinians but want a diplomatic achievement to their name. Sources in the Prime Minister's Office told Army Radio on Thursday that it was easier to reach a deal with Syria than with the Palestinians. Pundits on the Right made the point that giving up the Golan Heights would not help Olmert politically, because there is massive public opposition to such a move. A poll broadcast Wednesday on Channel 2 found that 70 percent opposed it and just 22% were in favor. BUT YEARS of diplomacy's not accomplishing anything have taught Israelis to make a distinction between a peace process and actual peace, between talking and really giving something up. The latter might be bad, but the former is always good, as evidenced by the economy that thrives during a peace process, but peace, well, we'll see if we ever get it. That's why a smart political operator like Shas chairman Eli Yishai can get away with saying that he would keep his party in the government despite the talks with Syria, but leave "if something dangerous happens." A Shvakim Panorama poll proved this thesis when it found that despite the massive opposition to giving up the Golan, 41% were in favor of the talks and only 31% opposed them. Among Kadima supporters, 72% were in favor of talking. Olmert will now likely make a concerted effort to reach a deal either with the Syrians or the Palestinians -- ideally both before the deadlines of US President George W. Bush's exit from office and a potential indictment that would make Olmert step down. It is not clear which of the two leaders who embraced so heartily just last week will go home first. But what does appear clear is that is that Olmert is living on borrowed time. The police insist that they already have enough evidence against him for an eventual indictment, and even if Olmert reached a diplomatic deal and initiated an election, he would have no chance of winning a Kadima primary. Kadima members are looking ahead to the face-off between Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz, Interior Minister Meir Sheetrit and possibly, Public Security Minister Avi Dichter. The race intensified in the past week, when all three of the definite candidates made controversial statements indicating that whenever the primary does take place, it will definitely be interesting. Livni was caught telling confidants that Olmert had acted in a manner that was "wrong, improper, immoral and unethical." There was a backlash in Kadima against Livni for not showing allegiance to Olmert in his time of need. Mofaz fell into the same journalistic trap when Ma'ariv political analyst Shalom Yerushalmi caught him criticizing Livni. "I made [life and death] decisions in the face of 25 generals with five different opinions," Mofaz said. "Has Tzipi Livni ever done that? What has Livni accomplished? [She's] spoken to a few foreign ministers? That's important. She is clean, as I am. But uprightness is not all that is necessary to run a country." Not to be outdone, Sheetrit told The Jerusalem Post that the press had acted too shallowly in already anointing Livni the victor before a primary has taken place, just because she is the most popular in the polls. "Selecting a prime minister is too important to leave to communications advisers who market their candidates to the press like cheese in a supermarket," Sheetrit said. "The press should check my record over the past 25 years against Tzipi's." Kadima officials close to Olmert said that if he were forced to quit, a primary could be held in as little as two weeks. While they made sure to show support for Olmert, and express hope that a race would not be held for a long time, even the people most loyal to the prime minister are certain that his time has passed. Now it's time for Olmert to make a last-ditch effort to make history before he becomes history.