Will Olmert survive?


JERUSALEM (JTA) — With a government commission of inquiry into the war in Lebanon about to issue its findings and challenges to his leadership mounting, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is fighting for his political life.

The Winograd Commission’s interim report on the war, due to be released in the second half of April, could be equally devastating for Defense Minister Amir Peretz.

The report’s release seems certain to intensify a struggle for national leadership, with Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni the frontrunner to take over as leader of Olmert’s Kadima Party.

In addition, opposition Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu is challenging for the premiership, and former Prime Minister Ehud Barak and ex-Shin-Bet head Ami Ayalon are threatening to oust Peretz as Labor leader.

If Olmert fails to hold on to power – and the smart money says he will have to go – Livni or Netanyahu could emerge as prime minister, with Barak or Ayalon as the new defense minister.

The Winograd Commission was set up last September in the wake of the Israeli army’s relatively poor showing in the war and the questions that were raised about the nation’s military and political leadership.

At the time, Olmert withstood intense public pressure to set up a state commission of inquiry whose members would have been appointed by the Supreme Court, which also would have drafted its terms of reference.

Instead, Olmert insisted on a government commission of inquiry whose members he appointed and whose very wide terms of reference he drafted. Now it seems this ploy may not have been enough to save his political career.

On March 13, the Winograd Commission, stung by implications that it had no teeth, took the unprecedented step for a statutory panel of inquiry of issuing a statement to the media: The interim report it planned to release in April, it said, would contain personal findings on Olmert, Peretz and former Chief of Staff Dan Halutz, who resigned in January following criticism of his wartime performance.

In the press statement, the commission explained that it had divided its work into three periods:

* The six years following Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from Lebanon in May 2000 to the outbreak of hostilities in June last year;

* The first six days of the war, from June 12, when Israeli soldiers Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser were kidnapped, to June 17, when Olmert made it clear in a speech to the Knesset that Israel viewed the fighting as full-scale war.

*The final four weeks of the war.

The interim report in April will focus on the first two periods and, according to the commission, “will deal with the prime minister’s, the defense minister’s and the chief of staff’s responsibility for the decisions leading to war and the way those decisions were made. “

The fact that the commission did not send out cautionary letters to Olmert or any of the others, which is the usual practice when a government official or army officer could be hurt by an inquiry’s findings, led to much speculation.

“Does it mean that there are no findings that will compel Olmert and the others to hang up their hats? columnist Yoel Marcus asked in Ha’aretz. “Or will the personal conclusions suffice to make the public throw all three to the lions? “

The fact is, according to Attorney General Menachem Mazuz, the commission cannot recommend the firing of the prime minister who appointed it. But it can create a public climate in which it will be impossible for Olmert to carry on.

Writing in Yediot Achronot , political analyst Sima Kadman observed that there was “a pistol on the table, ” and it would “fire in mid-April. “

Olmert, however, does not intend to go down without a fight. In an impassioned speech to Kadima’s governing council two days after the commission’s news release, the prime minister declared that “even though some people think this is the hunting season, I am sorry to disappoint my critics, but I am here to go on leading and working. “

Olmert’s biggest problem, though, is his almost total loss of public support. In the fight-back

speech, he put his unpopularity on the table but argued that, paradoxically, it stemmed from the fact that he was working hard, making tough decisions and not wasting time pandering to the people.

But no matter how eloquent the case he makes, the numbers are against him. Polls show that less than 3 percent of Israelis want him to stay in the top job, and that with him at the helm,

Kadima would crash from its current 29 Knesset seats to just seven or eight. From such a political nadir, pundits say, there is no way back.

That means a lot of pressure building up inside Kadima to replace Olmert with someone who would have a better chance of keeping the party in power. The frontrunner is Livni, who has been quietly building her power base in the party without overtly challenging Olmert, but without giving him any public support either.

“Unlike some of the others, she will not play the hypocrite, ” her confidants say.

When she makes her move for the party leadership, Livni almost certainly will be challenged by other top Kadima members, including Housing Minister Meir Shetreet, Transport Minister Shaul Mofaz and Internal Security Minister Avi Dichter.

But there is an interim scenario: 83-year-old Shimon Peres as caretaker prime minister after Olmert for a few months until Kadima sorts out its leadership roster.

According to the Kadima constitution, anyone who becomes acting party leader in the wake of the incumbent’s resignation cannot run for permanent party leader. And since Peres is the only top Kadima politician who has no designs on the long-term party leadership, he is being touted as Olmert’s immediate but temporary successor.

Given Kadima’s current weakness, power could shift from the party to Likud. The Likud’s Netanyahu sees two avenues to the premiership: a constructive vote of no-confidence in which 61 legislators coalesce around him as an alternative prime minister, or early elections.

For now he is making a bid to muster the support of 61 legislators for a majority in the Knesset.

Netanyahu can count on 50 from the religious parties and the right; he needs just 11 defectors from Kadima to make him prime minister. Netanyahu claims that several Kadima members, who are, after all, former Likudniks with poor re-election prospects in an imploding party, have been holding talks with him on their return to Likud.

With Livni, Peres and Netanyahu champing at the bit, and Kadima in turmoil, the pressure on Olmert to step down after the Winograd Commission issues its report will be enormous.