Analysis: Staving off political purgatory

PM vowed to resign if charged. But the message is also: He certainly won't resign otherwise.

barak press 224 88 ap (photo credit: AP)
barak press 224 88 ap
(photo credit: AP)
"An official close to [Prime Minister Ehud] Olmert said MKs allying themselves with the prime minister had begun discussing ways for Olmert to negotiate an 'honorable departure' from his office. The MKs committed themselves to supporting Olmert only in the short-term, to give the prime minister time to leave 'respectfully' and ensure that a successor take over who is not one of his rivals." Those words, by our political reporter Gil Hoffman, were not written in the last day or so, predicting Olmert's imminent demise amid the escalating corruption scandal engulfing him. They were penned, rather, a year ago, in May of 2007, when conventional wisdom - extending even to those who worked with the prime minister - held that Olmert was finished and his departure only a matter of days away. Olmert had been savaged in the first installment of the Winograd Committee's report on the Second Lebanon War. Along with that conflict's two other stewards, then-defense minister Amir Peretz and chief of General Staff Dan Halutz, he had been blasted for fundamentally failed leadership - in the scathing words of the committee, he ordered a war "despite the fact that no military plan was submitted and without asking for one." Some 160 Israeli soldiers and civilians were killed in a war for which that leadership triumvirate was stingingly upbraided. And yet, while Peretz and Halutz stepped aside and were replaced, Olmert did not budge. And for all the off-the-record talk at the time of an imminent "honorable departure," and some on-the-record demands for his ouster from among his political colleagues, narrow party and individual political interests ultimately prevailed. Then, as now, Labor didn't really want the coalition to fall apart, fearing a yet-poorer showing than in the 2006 elections. Then, as now, Kadima's Mrs. Clean - Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni - chose not to issue a "you go, or I will" ultimatum. Olmert adroitly locked in his coalition partners - Shas, the Gil Pensioners and the since-departed Israel Beiteinu - and lived to fight for his prime ministerial life another day. Wednesday's demand by Labor leader and Defense Minister Ehud Barak, in light of Morris Talansky's testimony, that Olmert step aside "in the near future" was not exactly an ultimatum, either. An ex-military man entirely capable of being blunt and curt, Barak did not suddenly forget how to say the word "immediately." He chose with great care to employ a vaguer term. Still, Barak also said that appropriate norms and the well-being of the nation required that Olmert "disconnect" himself from the premiership, at least temporarily. So have we reached the point where the perceived good of the country is indeed transcending narrower, selfish political considerations among those in the coalition? Olmert is certainly betting that the answer is no. Notwithstanding the overwhelming public mistrust of his expertise and his propriety, he is hoping the politicians around him will prove malleable once again. Yet Olmert would still not be in the clear. If he is to repeat 2007's survival feat and stave off political purgatory for more than a few days or weeks, he will truly need a repeat of last year's developments - a replication, that is, of the sequence whereby a devastating opening salvo, as from Winograd a year ago and Talansky and the state prosecutors this week, is followed by, well, nothing. That Winograd's disinclination or inability to supply the smoking gun that would have forced his ouster is matched now by the state prosecution's inability to make its case for the prime minister's indictment. On the night after Independence Day, Olmert promised he would resign if he were charged. But the implicit message of that statement is worth stressing, too: He certainly won't resign otherwise.