Analyze This: Something does smell - but it's not necessarily the scent of elections

Don't count out the survival of a Kadima-led government.

Ronnie Bar On 88 224 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Ronnie Bar On 88 224
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Finance Minister Ronnie Bar-On had good news for Israelis on Wednesday: Most will be paying significantly less income tax over the next decade, at least if the government passes the tax reform package he unveiled. Who doesn't like some nice tax cuts? Well, Meretz predictably raised concerns about the possible reductions in social spending this may entail, and the Histadrut Labor Federation even more predictably threatened a strike over Bar-On's intention to also revoke tax exemptions on the payments into employees' savings funds. Objections also came from Likud politicians - not on the substance of the plan, but its timing. The proposed tax cuts are pure "election economics," or have the "smell of elections" about them, according to several Likud MKs. They're right about one thing - something does reek about the Olmert government. However, it's not quite yet the scent of the nation returning to the polls, no matter how much the opposition's olfactory nerves may be awaiting a whiff of that particular odor. There is no arguing, though, that the metaphorical smell now emanating from the offices of government emanates in part from the rotting away of Ehud Olmert's political support. On Wednesday, in the face of mounting pressure from even some of his former supporters in Kadima, he finally gave the go-ahead for a party primary in the next few months to choose his potential successor, most likely to take place in September. The prime minister may have calculated that this maneuver would buy him some needed breathing space until his lawyers had the chance to cross-examine Morris Talansky, the key witness in the latest police investigation against him, on July 17. If his attorneys can punch holes in Talansky's testimony and character, Olmert may be reckoning that simply choosing a likely heir doesn't mean he will have to hand over the keys to the Prime Minister's Office anytime soon. If so, this represents a severe miscalculation. The single biggest factor keeping Olmert afloat right now is simply that with no clear-cut succession lined up, the major contenders for his position - Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz, Interior Minister Meir Sheetrit and Public Security Minister Avi Dichter - have been unable to agree on a plan to ease out a leader who has become a severe electoral and legal liability. Once that issue is resolved, though, and an heir is anointed by the party, the prime minister's last vestiges of backing in Kadima will quickly evaporate, no matter how the Talansky cross-examination pans out. Does that mean elections will inevitably soon follow, perhaps as early as November? That would appear to be the case, if a Likud bill to disperse the legislature, set to be introduced next week, does indeed gain the support of the Knesset majority that has already pledged to support it. This includes coalition members Labor and Shas. Their support, though, is only promised for a preliminary vote on the bill, and should not be viewed in the context of a sincere desire to face the voters anytime soon - if anything, the opposite. By threatening to bring down the government, Labor and Shas are really trying to force Kadima to remove its politically radioactive leader, as well to extract fresh concessions from their senior coalition partner. Both moves would make it easier for their leaders to stay put in the cabinet room, and forestall the government's early demise. Recent polls have shown Ehud Barak's Labor Party trailing both a Livni-led Kadima and Binyamin Netanyahu's Likud if a general election were held now. One big reason for that is that exactly a year after he took over as defense minister, "Mr. Security" has yet to provide security, or even temporary relief, for Israelis living in range of the aerial arsenal being fired against them on a daily basis from Gaza, by Hamas and the other Palestinian terror groups there. When Barak does go before the voters, he's sure to want in hand either a Hamas cease-fire that has held steady - and perhaps includes the release of Gilad Schalit - or a relatively successful military operation into Gaza, in either case halting the steady rain of Kassams, Katyushas and mortars on Sderot and environs. To commit to elections next autumn without having achieved that goal would be a high-risk political gamble that even this daring ex-commando is unlikely to take. As for Shas, it knows full well its continuing presence in an unpopular Olmert-led coalition has cost it some of its electoral base. Making up for some of that slippage would require either a reasonably convincing amount of time in the opposition, or some policy change of benefit to its core constituency. That's why Shas is pushing so hard now for the government to restore the child-allowance benefits that were severely cut as part of the budget reforms enacted by the Sharon-Netanyahu government, and have proved particularly onerous to the large working-class families Shas purports to represent. Whether Olmert's successor will be prepared to pay that price to Shas is certainly open to debate. But if Shas actually does intend to bolt over the issue, Kadima will have at least one other coalition card - Meretz, whose five MKs would be able to keep the coalition afloat, even if just barely with 62 seats. If it is Livni who takes over the reins of Kadima and carries on with the negotiations with the Palestinian Authority of which she is such an integral part, it would certainly be more difficult for Meretz to bring down a government headed by a politician untainted by corruption and strongly committed to pursuing a final-status deal with the PA. So while the seeds of real political change have been sown over the past week, it's too soon to assume next autumn's political harvest will include a return to the polls. As for Bar-On's tax breaks, they are designed to start kicking in come 2009 - when the smell of elections will be less a whiff than an overpowering odor, and Kadima's fervent hope will be that any lingering scent of Ehud Olmert will have dissipated from the political arena. [email protected]