PM mulls primary as 'graceful exit'

Livni joins Barak's call for Olmert to quit; Mofaz: FM won't get away with destroying Kadima.

Olmert worried 224.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski )
Olmert worried 224.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski )
Recognizing that his political downfall is all but unavoidable, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is considering accepting a proposal by senior Kadima ministers and MKs that is intended to allow the party to prepare for early elections while he leaves the Prime Minister's Office in a dignified manner, sources close to Olmert said Thursday. According to the proposal, the prime minister would give the authorization necessary to initiate a Kadima primary that would elect his successor. If Olmert is not charged in the Talansky affair, he would continue to serve as party leader and prime minister until the next general election, and the primary winner would become his heir apparent. If he is indicted and keeps his promise to step down, the winner could either form a new government or lead the party in elections that appear increasingly likely to take place by the end of the year. "We can remove Olmert without being brutal, while addressing the public outcry against corruption," said a senior Kadima official who is close to the prime minister. "This proposal will give him a chance to prove his innocence, while making sure the party will be ready for any eventuality. The more his senior political allies persuade him to go for it, the more likely he is to accept it." Kadima MK Tzahi Hanegbi, who heads the party's steering committee, announced that he would summon representatives of the four candidates to replace Olmert to decide on a mechanism for the primary. Hanegbi denied reports that he would seek to set a date for the primary next week, but candidates who spoke to Kadima MKs on Thursday said a September race was likely. "Regardless of what is happening with the investigation, the party has to get ready," he said. "We hope the prime minister will not be indicted, but [Labor Chairman Ehud] Barak began a process when he called for Olmert to leave office that requires steps on our part." Olmert is expected to respond to the challenges to his leadership presented Wednesday by Barak and Thursday by Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni in a Kadima faction meeting Sunday that was originally intended to be a festive pre-Jerusalem Day celebration. Kadima MKs said they would try to persuade Olmert to use the speech to "go out gracefully" and allow the race to succeed him to begin. Livni ratcheted up the pressure on Olmert by calling for a Kadima primary as soon as possible. "As of yesterday, there is a new reality," Livni said, speaking at a homeland security conference in Jerusalem. "I can't ignore the events of the past two days. This is no longer just a criminal or judicial issue. This is about values and norms that impact the State of Israel." Livni made a point of not mentioning Olmert by name. Sources close to Livni said she was trying to avoid being seen by Kadima members as attempting to depose him, because undermining a prime minister under fire might help her main challenger for the party leadership, Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz, who has recently allied himself with Olmert. "Kadima needs to take a decision on what it wants," Livni said. It needs to prepare now for all possible scenarios, including elections. These are the things I've been telling party and faction members. I'm working towards a swift, clean, process." Sources close to Olmert lashed out at Livni, accusing her of conspiring with Barak to overthrow him, a charge she vigorously denied. They said it was no coincidence that Livni and Barak consult with the same strategic adviser, Reuven Adler, a close friend of former prime minister Ariel Sharon whom Olmert fired. "It's unfortunate that Tzipi Livni blinked first and let the leader of another party decide the fate of Kadima," an Olmert associate said. "It's no wonder Olmert would rather have [Likud leader Binyamin] Netanyahu as prime minister than her." Mofaz also slammed Livni, accusing her of "conspiring with Barak to destroy Kadima," adding that she would not succeed in doing so. "I'm glad that Livni realized that Kadima is a democratic party that requires primaries, but I am shocked that she is pushing Kadima into Labor's arms," Mofaz said. "Only Kadima people will decide the party's fate." Barak intensified his attack on Olmert in a Labor ministers meeting Thursday at the party's Tel Aviv headquarters. He told the ministers he preferred the formation of an alternative government to elections, but he said the latter was more likely. "The coin has dropped and it is time to prepare for elections, apparently by the end of this year," Barak told the party's executive committee at the same location later in the day. "The prime minister and his party need to make decisions. If they don't, we will decide for them, according to the proper norms for Israel." Meretz called for the formation of an new coalition without holding an early election. "We can't let the internal crisis in Kadima force the country into several long months of diplomatic stagnation," party chairman Haim Oron said. Jenna Stark contributed to this report.