Olmert says he'll run again despite Labor deal

Olmert may stay in office even if new Kadima leader chosen; Shas said to hold key to gov't's survival.

olmert pensive 224.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski )
olmert pensive 224.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski )
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert embarrassed the Labor Party on Wednesday when he announced at the Knesset podium that he intends to run for reelection as Kadima chairman despite the deal reached overnight Tuesday in which Labor gave up its effort to initiate an early election. Even if Olmert does not run, he has made no promise to relinquish the premiership to the victor. He could continue serving as prime minister even if Kadima elects a new leader, because there is nothing in the Kadima bylaws that would force him to step down. The Knesset had been expected to pass by a wide margin the preliminary reading of Likud MK Silvan Shalom's bill to dissolve the Knesset and set an election for November. Olmert had threatened to fire Labor's cabinet ministers in a move that would have hastened his government's downfall. But Kadima and Labor representatives signed an agreement early Wednesday morning at Labor Chairman Ehud Barak's Tel Aviv home in which Labor agreed to oppose an early election, forcing Shalom to postpone the vote indefinitely and making it almost certain that a general election will not be held before February. In exchange, Kadima agreed to hold a party leadership primary on September 18. A runoff, if necessary, would be held a week later. At a Knesset session on Wednesday on the now-outdated topic of "The government has reached its end," Likud faction chairman Gideon Sa'ar heckled Olmert, asking sarcastically why Kadima was holding a primary if its leader was so successful. Another MK asked Sa'ar why Olmert agreed to hold the primary. "He will also participate [in the primary]," Olmert responded, speaking about himself in third person. In private conversations, Olmert said he had not yet decided whether to run and that it would depend on his success in defending himself in the corruption cases against him. Several of his associates said the prime minister realized there was almost no chance he could run and even less chance that he would win if he did. Labor secretary-general Eitan Cabel, who negotiated the deal, did not insist on ruling out an Olmert reelection bid, mostly because he thought this was superfluous and because he did not want to embarrass the prime minister. But he ended up being embarrassed and outraged by Olmert's statement at the Knesset. "I can't deal all day with the question of whether or not I am being lied to," Cabel said. "If Olmert runs, we will quit the coalition and I will submit a motion of no-confidence in the government." Barak's associates downplayed Olmert's declarations, saying there was "a difference between what Olmert says and the real world." Agriculture Minister Shalom Simhon of Labor said that Olmert getting reelected as Kadima leader was "about as likely as winning $50 million in the lottery in America." Kadima council chairman Meir Nitzan said he would recommend an August 18 deadline to join the Kadima race, which would give Olmert a month to decide his future after the July 17 cross-examination of the key witness against him, American financier Morris Talansky. If Olmert were to agree to leave the Prime Minister's Office, whoever would win the Kadima primary in September would be obligated to form a new government. Shas chairman Eli Yishai said Wednesday that the party would not remain in the coalition unless the new Kadima leader would agree to his demand for an NIS 1 billion raise in annual child welfare allowances. "We will be the kingmaker in September," a Shas minister said. "The government will eventually fall on the issue of child welfare payments, and we will still get them." Among the top Kadima leadership candidates, Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz has reportedly told Yishai that he would raise the payments, while Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni has not. The question of who could form a new government is expected to play a central role in the race. Meanwhile, long-awaited cabinet appointments are expected in the next few weeks. A new tourism minister from Kadima and a new Knesset Finance Committee chairman from Labor will be named. Shas officials said they did not want a new minister or deputy minister.