Olmert set to endorse Kadima primary

Move may herald the beginning of the end for PM; aides: He had intended to defy political pressure.

olmert cabinet 224.88 (photo credit: AP)
olmert cabinet 224.88
(photo credit: AP)
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is likely to initiate the end of his political career on Wednesday when he is expected to give the authorization necessary for a primary in Kadima to replace him. Olmert had intended to defy political pressure and continue to try to stall the process of ending his premiership, but sources close to him said Tuesday that he now had no choice but to cooperate. The prime minister will reveal his decision Wednesday afternoon in a meeting with the head of Kadima's steering committee, MK Tzahi Hanegbi, and coalition chairman Eli Aflalo. Officials in the Prime Minister's Office tried to downplay Olmert's decision, saying that they "don't expect him to say anything dramatic." Some Kadima MKs said they thought Olmert would still try to delay setting a date for the primary until after the July 17 cross-examination of American financier Morris Talansky and that the cancellation of a steering committee meeting set for Wednesday had "bought him time." But others said the prime minister realized there was no chance of waiting an entire month anymore. "Olmert cannot and will not go against everyone," an MK who is a close confidant of the prime minister said. "If there is a consensus for initiating a primary, he won't stand in the way. He can't put on the brakes any more when there are enough forces in the party who want it to happen." The apparent change of heart for Olmert happened after Public Security Minister Avi Dichter released a statement clarifying his opinion in favor of initiating a primary. His associates said Hanegbi had misinterpreted him when he told the press last week that he was against starting the primary process before Talansky's cross-examination. "The primary should be no later than the beginning of September," Dichter told Hanegbi on Tuesday. "The date for the primary should be decided by July." Until Tuesday it appeared that three Kadima candidates opposed initiating primaries and only Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni was in favor. But now Livni and Dichter are in favor, Interior Minister Meir Sheetrit remains opposed and Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz has decided not to take a stand on the issue. "There will be primaries in Kadima," Mofaz said in a carefully-worded statement. "I want the party to decide when to begin the primary process." Livni's loyalists welcomed the change in the candidates' viewpoints but said that she realized all along that her view had more support than she was being given credit for in the media. Her associates said that Kadima had to take a major step or risk being made irrelevant. "Kadima has to decide for itself where it is heading in order to restore the public's trust in politics in general and in Kadima specifically," a Livni associate said. "Kadima must begin to prepare and make big decisions." Olmert's opinion was also expected to be affected by the growing support in the Knesset for Likud MK Silvan Shalom's bill to disperse the Knesset and initiate an election in November. Meretz endorsed the bill on Tuesday, giving it the support of 74 MKs. Labor officials said the only way they would vote against the bill was if Olmert agreed to initiate a primary. Labor's 19 MKs could prevent the bill from passing when it comes to a preliminary reading in the Knesset next Wednesday. A high-ranking Shas official said the bill would be delayed by a week "for a hundred different reasons" and only voted on June 25. Shalom has expressed a willingness to delay the vote by a week to obtain Shas's support. Environmental Protection Minister Gideon Ezra endorsed Livni in the Kadima leadership race on Tuesday, becoming the first Kadima minister or high-ranking party official to openly take sides in the race.