Today brought another piece of bad news for Israelis and Americans who have been desperately searching for someone, anyone, to pose a credible challenge to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The plea bargain agreed to by a top aide to former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert seems to put a bow on the case that state prosecutors have been trying to build against him for years. Shula Zaken, who ran Olmert’s office when he was mayor of Jerusalem as well as prime minister, has reportedly agreed to tell all about his corrupt dealings, both in the Holyland affair, which is currently being tried, and on other charges, including those on which the former PM had either drawn a slap on the wrist or been acquitted. Even worse than detailing the way he diverted money illegally into his own accounts, Zaken allegedly has a tape of Olmert pressuring her to clam up about his crimes in exchange for money that will undoubtedly lead to an obstruction of justice charge.
This is hardly good news for Israelis who have already seen a president sent to jail for rape (Moshe Katsav) and a leading candidate for that largely symbolic office (Silvan Shalom, a member of Netanyahu’s cabinet), disqualified by similar charges just this month. But aside from the dismal spectacle of someone who is protected by the Shin Bet much in the way former U.S. presidents are guarded by the Secret Service being hauled off to jail, Olmert’s fate also makes it just a little more difficult to imagine anyone mounting an effective challenge to Netanyahu in 2017 when he will be up for reelection.
I have always been skeptical about the notion that Olmert had any chance to return to the prime minister’s office or even a leading role in the Knesset. Even if you assumed, as many Israelis did, that state prosecutors would never be able to secure a conviction on any of the many corruption charges lodged against Olmert, the main problem he faced was the public’s memory of his inglorious record as prime minister.
Like most of the leading opportunists of both the Likud and Labor who joined the late Ariel Sharon’s Kadima Party in 2005, Olmert thought it was a ticket to office. But few Israelis were thinking that the creation of the centrist group (formed to back Sharon’s disastrous Gaza withdrawal plan) would lead to Olmert’s becoming prime minister. But that’s what happened when Sharon was felled by a cerebral hemorrhage in January 2006. Olmert won the election that followed on the basis of Sharon’s memory. But within months the outbreak of a war with Hezbollah along Israel’s northern border exposed him as unready for power.
His weak leadership contributed to the disastrous outcome of that conflict as well as the worsening of the situation along the border with Gaza as Gilad Shalit’s kidnapping and the ceaseless bombardment of southern Israel by Hamas missiles showed. In the waning months of his three-year administration (he chose not to seek reelection because of the pending corruption cases against him) Olmert redeemed his reputation somewhat by ordering the Cast Lead offensive into Gaza to stop the rockets. He also gained applause in the U.S. and among Israeli left-wingers by making a peace offer to the Palestinians of independence and statehood that exceeded even the ones made by Ehud Barak to Yasir Arafat. But Mahmoud Abbas fled the negotiations rather than give him an answer.
Nevertheless, Olmert was deeply unpopular for almost his entire term in office. At one point his favorability ratings were actually in the single digits and overlapped with the pollsters’ margin of error, opening up the possibility that almost no one in the country approved of his job performance. Nevertheless, Olmert’s ability to escape punishment on the first charges on which he was tried led some to believe he could mount a comeback. With none of the heads of Israel’s various parties other than Netanyahu thought to be ready for the post of prime minister, Olmert’s experience made him a possibility to lead a center-left coalition against the Likud leader. Frequent speaking engagements where liberal American Jews applauded him for his criticisms of Netanyahu convinced some that he had a political future as a peace candidate.
That’s all over now. Left-wing critics of Netanyahu must hope that one of the PM’s rivals, such as Labor Party head Isaac Herzog, will emerge as a genuine competitor in the next three years. But whatever happens in the coming months and years—and Israeli politics will remain deeply influenced by the refusal of the Palestinians to make peace—Netanyahu needn’t worry about Olmert anymore.