So, against my predictions, the Winograd Commission report came and went, and Ehud Olmert’s government weathered the storm, right? Not so fast. It is true that, to everyone’s astonishment, the report essentially gave Olmert a much-needed bye, and his biggest coalition partner, Ehud Barak of the Labor party, announced he is not resigning for now. But last week Israel was awash in scandal, when a member of the esteemed commission, Yehezkel Dror, implied in an interview that the commission’s findings were skewed towards protecting Olmert’s government for political reasons. As he put it, “If we believe that the prime minister could promote the peace process, this is quite a lofty consideration. If the peace process succeeds, this could save so many lives, and therefore this is a substantial consideration.” If the message were not clear enough, Dror added the following: “What would you prefer? A government under Olmert and Barak, or new elections that would see Bibi [Netanyahu] rise to power?” Subtle.
But the most important news comes from a third party in the coalition, Shas, which holds twelve seats and can bring down the government on its own. Thursday, the head of the party, Eli Yishai, told his supporters that “I don’t know how long this government will last. I estimate that soon we will have elections.” According to radio reports, Yishai also instructed his party’s local branches to begin preparations for elections this coming November — a year and a half earlier than scheduled. Ehud Barak has also hinted that he is leaning towards early elections.
There are good reasons to think that this is not just posturing. True, historically speaking Shas is one of the least likely parties to bring down a government — its main goal in life is to secure maximum government funding for its religious schools, and being in opposition is not very good for that. But today Olmert’s government is deeply unpopular, reeking of both corruption and incompetence. In such a case, parties that cling to the government do so at their peril: As soon as one party seriously considers bolting under popular pressure, the other stands to be left clinging to a sinking ship — and voters will punish those who didn’t leave when they had the chance. The result is that contrary to ordinary politics, where parties hold on to power as long as they can, prophecies of a falling government are often self-fulfilling, as each party jockeys for the best advantage in the next election. Stay tuned.