Reports of Ehud Olmert’s demise have for many years been greatly exaggerated, but his latest scandal really does appear decisive. It is the beginning of the end for Olmert, and it seems to me that there are roughly three ways that all of this will play out in the coming months:
1. Olmert voluntarily steps down and allows his party to choose a new leader (almost certainly Livni), thereby preserving the government;
2. Olmert hangs tough and Barak makes good on his promise to leave the coalition, forcing elections;
3. Olmert hangs tough and Barak doesn’t leave the coalition.
Scenario #1 seems implausible but not impossible. Olmert, who has always insisted that technically he has done nothing wrong, may depart voluntarily, but only if his indictment becomes a certainty. But there is perhaps a deeper problem: the Shas party, which is currently part of Olmert’s coalition, has said that it will not join a government headed by Livni. If Shas makes good on this pledge, Livni’s only path to the premiership is through elections (scenario #2), which obviously represent an uncertain path to power.
Scenario #2 is the most likely, but also the most puzzling: Barak has set in motion a series of events that very well may not conclude in his taking the premiership, given Likud’s popularity. Why would he do that? He might believe that a unity government is in the offing, or that a new prime minister (assuming Barak remains at defense) would finally allow him to take the IDF into Gaza, which he has long wanted to do. Simply in terms of political calculation, Barak’s declaration yesterday would only seem to make sense if he felt that he has a good chance of coming to power through new elections. But perhaps something else is at work here, something extraordinarily rare in politics: maybe Barak really does feel that Israel is imperiled by Ehud Olmert, and that the requirements of national security and national honor compel him to unseat Olmert regardless of how such an upheaval will affect his own political fortunes.
Scenario #3 is the most implausible, with Barak ending up humiliated because he doesn’t follow his tough words with action.
Yossi Klein Halevy provides a final thought:
The end of Olmert needs to begin a process that will end Olmertism, the acceptance of corruption as an unavoidable part of Israeli politics. The current generation of politicians who grew up in the culture of Olmertism needs to be replaced by a new generation–young people in their 30s and 40s who, for example, helped transform the Israeli economy and high-tech sector. Precisely because they value excellence and dedication, those young people have shunned Israeli politics. But as the Olmert affair proves, the country can no longer leave its governance to the vain and merely ambitious men who have desecrated the name of Israel.
Update: my friend Carl in Jerusalem emails with some wise thoughts:
Barak did what he did yesterday in the hope that Kadima will throw Olmert out and that the Knesset will stay intact with Livni becoming Prime Minister. He underestimated Olmert’s resentment of Livni. He thought that Livni is a lightweight, and after 6-12 months of her as Prime Minister, the country will have had enough and he will be in a better position to challenge Netanyahu. His party is furious with him because all the polls show that they will get screwed and be left with about 12 seats and in third place (polls come out Friday morning – should be interesting tomorrow). He has no hope of being Prime Minister now regardless of what happens, but yes, he thinks he can go into a coalition with Likud and come out defense minister. Bibi may have other ideas like bringing back [Shaul] Mofaz or bringing in [Bogie] Yaalon.