Former Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert, who resigned amid a slew of corruption allegations, was acquitted yesterday on two corruption charges and found guilty of merely breach of trust in a third. While the Holyland corruption trial is still ongoing, yesterday’s verdicts are a clear victory for Olmert, who is now seen in some quarters as the victim of an unfair witchhunt, and his acquittal has prompted calls for the state prosecutor to resign. Olmert’s reputation has also undergone a resurgence overnight; a bunch of Kadima MKs publicly called for him to return to politics, with Yuval Zellner calling him one of the best prime ministers in Israel’s history, and one columnist posited that Olmert is the only Israeli politician who could credibly challenge Netanyahu in the next election.
I wouldn’t be so quick though to count on Olmert rising from the political graveyard. First, there is the question of his political constituency. Let’s not forget that Olmert was massively unpopular due his presiding over some enormous catastrophes, starting with the 2006 war against Hizballah. The Winograd Commission eviscerated Olmert’s leadership, judgment, and decisionmaking, and stressed his lack of military experience, all of which led to Olmert’s approval rating falling to a jaw-dropping 3% at one point. His efforts to negotiate an agreement with Mahmoud Abbas were widely viewed as a political stunt engineered to save his career. Even before the indictments against him, Olmert was seen as being overly corrupt in a political system legendary for its corruption. In short, this was an unpopular prime minister with no military record to fall back on whose primary accomplishment was negotiating an agreement that was never accepted or even countered. Which segment of the public is going to be clamoring for his return? What in his track record makes him a foe that Bibi should fear? Plenty of Israeli politicians have had second lives in politics after being cast aside, with Ariel Sharon and Netanyahu being the two most prominent recent examples (and Tzipi Livni perhaps poised to be another), but they all had large cadres of backers and took advantage of new political developments to reassert themselves.
Which brings me to point number two. Given his efforts at the end of his time in office and his public comments since he stepped down, Olmert’s presumed constituency would be the Israeli center that wants to see a renewed push for a deal with the Palestinians. The problem is, this center is pretty much non-existent at this point. It is no accident that we hear very little from Labor leader (and opposition head) Shelley Yachimovich about the peace process, or that Tzipi Livni barely harped on it when she was opposition leader, or that Shaul Mofaz focused almost exclusively on social issues when he ran to replace Livni as Kadima head. There are a combination of factors that have contributed to the death of the Israeli peace camp (and this deserves a long blog post, which I plan on getting to soon), but suffice it to say that a deal with the Palestinians is not a winning issue in Israeli politics these days. Given that this has become what Olmert is best known for (aside from royally screwing up in Lebanon), I don’t envision a huge grassroots movement to draft Olmert back into politics.
The one place where he does appear to have a constituency is within the ranks of Kadima. The Kadima MKs who called for him to return yesterday are pretty clearly unhappy with Mofaz, who went from stating that he would never join forces with Netanyahu (whom he dubbed a liar) to joining the coalition to then making empty threats about leaving and is now seen as an incompetent as he endlessly dithers over whether to stay or go following the Plesner Committee fiasco. The problem is that Mofaz is not going to just step down and hand over the reins of his party to Olmert, despite the nonsensical assertion in Time that Mofaz’s congratulatory message to Olmert yesterday means that he would do exactly that. Let’s say that Olmert’s supporters within Kadima, who are disenchanted with Mofaz, decide to revolt. Either they manage to break off and form a rump party with Olmert at its head, which is not going to scare anybody, or they force another divisive leadership battle within Kadima, which weakens it even further and leads to its virtual disappearance. Either way, I don’t see how this provides a successful vehicle for Olmert to rise back up to political relevance.
I can understand why there are those who look at Bibi and miss the days when Olmert was prime minister, but my hunch is that this group of people, however large, mainly resides outside of Israel. Within Israel, I just don’t see how Olmert at this point reenters politics with any real support behind him. There doesn’t seem to be a contingent of Israelis that would naturally support him, and some disenchanted MKs being led by a former PM whose popularity at one point was almost literally zero does not a political dynamo make. It would be great if Olmert’s return to the political scene sparked a renewed interest in the peace process and a reexamination of what Israel needs to do to separate from the Palestinians and create a Palestinian state once and for all, but I think that Netanyahu can rest easy when it comes to Olmert presenting a challenge to his political dominance.