American critics of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have spent the time since his election in early 2009 longing for someone who could knock the Likud leader off his perch. But luckily for Netanyahu, his most likely rivals, such as former Kadima Party leader Tzipi Livni, have crashed and burned in the intervening years. Ironically, the latest figure to raise the hopes of American Bibi-bashers is someone who actually crashed and burned before Netanyahu’s second term as prime minister began. His predecessor Ehud Olmert has been the subject of a mini-boomlet among some Americans desperate for a new challenger to the incumbent, but you have to take a pretty cynical view of Israeli society to believe that the suspended sentence and fine he was given today by a judge for his conviction for breach of public trust will act as a springboard for a comeback.
Though left-wing American groups like J Street have treated him like a hero, his checkered ethical record as well as the fact that he is widely considered his country’s least successful leader in history are the sort of handicaps that ought to daunt even the boldest of politicians. Though Netanyahu is going through a rough patch right now after a few years of being unchallenged, if the best his liberal American detractors can come up with is someone like Olmert, then he has little to worry about at the next election.
It is true that Olmert is attempting to spin his evasion of jail time on corruption charges as a vindication. But even by the rough and tumble standards of Israeli politics, it’s hard to imagine that his public apology for misbehavior will be seen as a good reason to put him back into the prime minister’s office. As the judge said at his sentencing, the reason he got such a light sentence (which may be appealed by prosecutors) was because he had already suffered the serious penalty of being driven from office under an ethical cloud.
The fact that his suspended sentence will almost certainly be still in effect when Israeli voters go to the polls sometime next year is also a problem. So, too, is the fact that he faces trial on other serious corruption charges relating to bribery and influence peddling during his years as mayor of Jerusalem. Olmert is a slippery character and his luck may hold in the coming trial as it did in the last one when, despite a large body of evidence pointing to his guilt, he was only convicted on a lesser charge. But as much as he may pretend to be the victim of a political witch-hunt, these are not the sorts of resume items that help you win elections.
Those who speak of an Olmert comeback can point to the way Benjamin Netanyahu rose from the political dead after his ignominious defeat in 1999 after three not terribly popular years as prime minister. It’s true that given time, all political sins might be forgiven. But Netanyahu spent the interim between his two terms rebuilding his reputation with a successful term as finance minister, not dodging jail. For all of his drawbacks, it should also be pointed out that unlike Olmert, Netanyahu did not preside over a disastrous military campaign such as the 2006 Lebanon War. Nor did his poll numbers ever drop as low as those of Olmert, who at one point had a favorability rating that was so miniscule it was actually within the survey’s margin of error raising the theoretical possibility that no one in the country thought he was doing a good job.
Netanyahu probably made a mistake this past spring when he chose to create a grand coalition with the remnants of Kadima rather than going straight to new elections on his own. That alliance didn’t last and he is now locked in a difficult fight with President Obama over Iran that, while not politically fatal, is certainly not to his advantage. But no one currently on the Israeli political scene, like Kadima’s Shaul Mofaz, or those who are currently off it, like Olmert and Tzipi Livni–another failed Kadima leader–have much of a shot to beat him at the next election. While a resurgent Labor is bound to replace Kadima as the main opposition, its head Shelly Yachimovich isn’t seen as someone who’s ready to be prime minister.
Like it or not, American Jewish liberals who loathe Netanyahu are still probably going to be stuck with him as Israel’s leader for the foreseeable future. Though his missteps in recent months show he isn’t bulletproof, potential challengers like Olmert show how puny his opposition has become.