Prime Benjamin Netanyahu says Israel will hold early elections in February, but the Israeli Left is so unprepared that some of its leaders are pinning their hopes on two convicted politicians—ex-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert of the leftist Kadima Party and ex-Interior Minister Aryeh Deri of the religious Shas Party.
The largely left-of-center voices on Israeli State Radio and commercial TV have been boosting Olmert as the one politician who has any chance of providing the leadership and charisma to unite the economic left led by the Labor Party of Shelly Yehimovitch with the territorial minimalists of the Kadima Party.
These analysts have also been touting Deri, once leader of the Shas Party, as a man who can siphon votes away from the largely rightist religious parties that usually support Benjamin Netanyahu and his Likud Party in forming a coalition government.
“We do not need more corrupt politicians,” said Labor’s leader Yehimovitch, when she was asked about the possibility of Olmert returning to politics.
Yehimovitch, who was herself a reporter for Israel Radio and commercial TV, has been brutally frank in discussing Olmert: “The first thing we ask of any politician is that they be honest. After that, we look at their political views and their record.”
Olmert was convicted last month on four counts of corruption but got only a fine and a suspended prison term. Judges scolded him for corrupt behavior but gave him the “benefit of the doubt” on the fact that he got envelopes stuffed with cash–$600,000 at least.
Olmert claimed he thought the envelopes were just a campaign contribution, and the judges acquitted on those counts by reason of doubt—a verdict that was critiqued by many legal experts and which will be appealed by Israeli prosecutors.
Olmert also faces at least one other major corruption trial, involving charges of his allegedly taking bribes while mayor of Jerusalem in return for fixing zoning regulations for real estate interests. He is the only Israeli prime minister ever convicted of a criminal offense.
When Olmert left office in 2008, he had less than a five per cent popularity rating, having led Israel to two inconclusive wars against Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza. His Kadima Party was seen as having evicted 10,000 Israelis from Gaza on a false hope of peace with the Palestinians, now partly led by Hamas.
Kadima’s leader, Shaul Mofaz, has looked inept. He called Netanyahu a liar one day then joined his government for a few weeks, only to bolt again to opposition, where he has appeared feckless in parliamentary debates. Kadima currently has 29 seats in the 120-member Knesset, but polls forecast it will get only a handful in new elections.
Israeli political analysts say that the Labor Party will increase its share in the upcoming elections, mostly at the expense of the Kadima Party whose founding leader Ariel Sharon dropped into a deep coma after he completed the Israeli pull-back from Gaza in 2005.
Israeli pundits say Netanyahu has a strong position on security issues because the Left’s talk deals with the Palestinians have proven fruitless. Meanwhile, Netanyahu has kept Israel outside the economic chaos that has struck the US and Europe.
Recent polls suggest that the Likud and the other rightist and religious parties will probably garner 70 of 120 Knesset seats, but the elections are still several months away, and these scenarios could change, if there is any major fighting involving Iran, Hizballah or Hamas.
Dr. Michael Widlanski, an expert on Arab politics and communications, is the author of Battle for Our Minds: Western Elites and the Terror Threat published by Threshold/Simon and Schuster. He was Strategic Affairs Advisor in Israel’s Ministry of Public Security and teaches at Bar Ilan University.