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If Olmert Falls, What’s Next For Israel?

Israeli journalists are pre-celebrating Israel's sixtieth with a big, compelling story, yet another police investigation of Ehud Olmert over possible bribes he accepted from an American Jewish businessman. But their tone, this time, is subtly different from the past. The … Read More

By / May 9, 2008

Israeli journalists are pre-celebrating Israel's sixtieth with a big, compelling story, yet another police investigation of Ehud Olmert over possible bribes he accepted from an American Jewish businessman. But their tone, this time, is subtly different from the past. The reports of interrogation (of Olmert himself, former staffers, etc.,) are less sassy. Ministers are keeping their counsel instead of rushing to Olmert's defense. There are confident leaks that the "situation is grave." The police seem to have got their man — anyway, if their case is not bullet-proof, it is they who should be investigated for doing this to the public, of all times, now.

So reasonable people are preparing themselves for the possibility that Olmert will soon have to resign. This would be bad news — and good.

First, the bad: I have not hidden my personal fondness for Ehud Olmert, which makes me completely unremarkable. Olmert is a likable, glad-handing centrist, a poster-child for Israel's rising professional and entrepreneurial élites, who has cultivated Western journalists and back-and-forth Israelis like myself for years. But this is not personal. It is business. Waiting in the wings, liking the polls, is the worst government imaginable, a Bibi Netanyahu coalition of Likud's hardest-liners, back-to-the-Land-of-Israel cultists, ultra-Orthodox claustrophiles, Russian reactionaries and oligarchs, and general opportunists. Resignation could bring the demise of the Kadima Party, as former Likud people scurry back to the fold.

True, Olmert's prosecution would be a tribute to Israeli democracy, in a way — to the rule of law and the procedures for electing what's next. But new elections would almost certainly bring to power the most antidemocratic coalition in Israel's history, just at a time when negotiations with the Palestinian Authority hang by a thread, a new administration is coming to Washington, and Israel's own Arab minority is inching toward wholesale alienation. I am not sure Israel could take five more years of this. I am sure the West, Arab moderates, etc., cannot take five more years of this Israel.

The good news, however, is that there is an obvious replacement for Olmert, who has always stood a much better chance of holding Kadima together by the force of her popularity. I mean, of course, the foreign minister, Tzipi Livni, a straight-talking, very bright, and evolving politician (profiled here by the New York Times' Roger Cohen).

Livni, unlike Olmert, was not tarnished by the 2006 Lebanon fiasco. As Akiva Eldar implies, she might well revive Kadima and draw new, younger forces to it. She is also more likely to advance the peace negotiations (which she nominally runs), or at least bring them to the national agenda. She provides Labor's doves a leader to rally to while their own leader, Ehud Barak, continues to posture as the new Ariel Sharon, the IDF's real commander, the scourge of terrorists. She could add the leftist Meretz Party, which said it would never join a government led by Olmert after Lebanon.

Indeed, the best scenario is not unlikely — not if the Bush administration supports it actively, and helps keep restless ministers (like former Likud defense minister Shaul Mofaz) bailing water instead of abandoning ship. It is that Livni and Barak will govern together for a year or so, and reconstitute the Israeli center, while putting the taint of corruption behind them. Only this will deny Netanyahu his second act. Something must.

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