Olmert-Mofaz bond seen solidifying

Speculation whether PM would work on Mofaz's behalf against Livni in future succession battle.

mofaz olmert 224.88 (photo credit: AP [file])
mofaz olmert 224.88
(photo credit: AP [file])
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert praised Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz in Sunday's meeting of Kadima ministers, raising speculation in the party about whether Olmert would work on Mofaz's behalf against their mutual nemesis, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, in a future succession battle. Just three months ago, Mofaz slammed Olmert in a televised interview for failing in his management of the Second Lebanon War. Olmert's associates responded by calling on Mofaz to quit. But the relationship between the two men has dramatically improved recently as Mofaz has defended Olmert against corruption charges and the prime minister has begun consulting with him on military matters. "Mofaz was a full partner in the secret of the Turkish channel in the talks with Syria," Olmert told Kadima ministers after they complained that he had consulted only with Mofaz about these talks and not with them. "I respect him as a former defense minister and chief of General Staff of the IDF." In the cabinet meeting that followed, Mofaz raised eyebrows when he sat next to the prime minister in the chair left vacant by Livni's absence. While Olmert's associates have declined to even speculate about his departure, other Kadima officials talked discreetly on Sunday about the possibility that Olmert, should he have to quit due to the corruption charges against him, could set a date for his departure in advance to coincide with a Kadima primary, and endorse Mofaz. Kadima officials compared such a move to steps taken by then-prime minister Menachem Begin that helped crown Yitzhak Shamir, and then-British prime minister Tony Blair's endorsement of his successor, Gordon Brown. "There isn't a promise from Olmert to Mofaz, but if political realities change because of the investigations, such a move is an option that is both realistic and responsible," a source closely familiar with the relationship between the two men said. A bond between Olmert and Mofaz could give a huge boost to the latter, because Olmert remains very powerful in the party while Mofaz's strength is among the 62,000 Kadima members who would vote in a potential primary. Olmert could direct several of the party's leaders to join him in supporting Mofaz in a move that could help sway an eventual primary. Mofaz's associates said he had made a strategic decision to support Olmert at a time when there was a backlash against Livni in Kadima for failing to help the prime minister when he needed it most. "Even public figures are innocent until proven guilty," Mofaz said when asked about the allegations against Olmert in an Israel Radio interview Thursday. "Things continue to be run properly in our country. Kadima has fitting leadership." In another development in Kadima, sources close to Knesset Speaker Dalia Itzik denied reports on Sunday that she had plans to serve as acting prime minister should Olmert decide to quit and not remain prime minister of a transition government. The reports suggested that there was a growing bloc of support within Kadima for Itzik to take over temporarily, a plan partially based on the fact that Itzik is one of the most popular members of the party among the public. Itzik's associates said she was looking in other directions entirely for her next political move and that she preferred to follow fellow Labor defector Shimon Peres on the road to Beit Hanassi. At least one source close to the Knesset speaker said the rumors concerning Itzik's viability as acting prime minister - and reports Friday that she was meeting with Livni to form an alliance - were likely started as a spin attempt to alienate Itzik from Olmert. Itzik has been one of Olmert's most senior and stalwart defenders within Kadima. She has emphasized that she believes the prime minister to be innocent of the allegations against him. Rebecca Anna Stoil contributed to this report.