Comeback for Olmert? Not so fast, experts say

Comeback for Olmert? Not so fast, experts say

The former prime minister has several options for a political return, but two more legal obstacles to clear first -- and a battle in the court of public opinion

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Foreign minister Tzipi Livni and prime minister Ehud Olmert, pictured at a cabinet meeting in 2008; Shaul Mofaz is to Livni's right. (photo credit Lior Mizrahi/Flash90)
Foreign minister Tzipi Livni and prime minister Ehud Olmert, pictured at a cabinet meeting in 2008; Shaul Mofaz is to Livni's right. (photo credit Lior Mizrahi/Flash90)

With former prime minister Ehud Olmert cleared of two of the most serious charges against him, talk on Tuesday turned quickly to the question of a political comeback.

Any return still requires two more positive developments from Olmert’s point of view, however. He would need a satisfactory result in the other major case for which he is still on trial — regarding alleged illegalities in the Holyland building project in Jerusalem. And he would need to avoid a sentence of three months or more in jail and without the designation of “moral turpitude” in the one count for which he was convicted — that of breach of trust in the Investments Center real estate case — the most minor of the three cases that were determined on Tuesday.

While Olmert, 66, was far from an all-around crowd-pleaser, many in the peace camp believe the formerly hawkish politician came closer than any of his predecessors to reaching an agreement with the Palestinians before he stepped down in 2009 amid the corruption charges. And it was from this sector of the political spectrum that encouragement for a political return was broadcast most strongly on Tuesday.

If his path is legally cleared, Olmert, who started his political career in the Likud and in 2005 co-founded Kadima, has several comeback options to choose from.

He could try to retake his place at the helm of Kadima, which would mean replacing the current party head, Shaul Mofaz, who has lost support amid the draft reform imbroglio. Olmert might also join his former foreign minister, Tzipi Livni, who is rumored to be planning a comeback herself by creating a new centrist party, presumably with Kadima MKs unhappy with Mofaz’s leadership. However, Olmert will not easily forgive Livni for, as he sees it, having failed to stand by him when the corruption allegations led to his political demise four years ago.

‘The minute Olmert decides to run for office again, it will be neck-to-neck, but his neck is one inch ahead of Netanyahu’s’

Olmert is known to be close to former TV personality-cum-political hopeful Yair Lapid, who has created his own centrist party. However, Lapid had repeatedly stated that his list for the Knesset would not include any worn-out has-been politicians. Despite Tuesday’s near-complete victory in court, Olmert is still the first Israeli prime minister found guilty of a criminal act. With that conviction, relatively minor though it is, and the Holyland case, in which he is accused of accepting bribes during his time as mayor of Jerusalem, he hardly adds up to the perfect profile for Lapid’s Yesh Atid, a party that promises a new, cleaner kind of politics.

Haim Ramon and Tzipi Livni at the Knesset in 2009 (photo credit: Kobi Gideon/Flash90)
Haim Ramon and Tzipi Livni at the Knesset in 2009 (photo credit: Kobi Gideon/Flash90)

Then there is Haim Ramon, another Kadima co-founder, who recently declared his intention to return to the political arena with a new centrist party of his own. This option would have the advantage of Olmert not having to battle the egos of other party chairs, since Ramon seems to have no such ambitions.

In the meantime, current Kadima lawmakers are ready to take Olmert back in. “Ehud Olmert is one of Kadima’s founders and there’s no doubt that if he wants, and if he can, he will return to politics. At Kadima he will always find an open door,” MK Yoel Hasson told The Times of Israel.

“He would be accepted with great love and we wish him the best in the challenges that still lie ahead of him,” echoed MK Ze’ev Bielski.

Former Knesset Speaker Avraham Burg, a Laborite, went one step further: Tuesday’s court decision changed Olmert’s status from “former prime minister” to “prime minister-in waiting,” he said.

“A sitting prime minister was impeached, live on TV, so to speak. And the issues that led to his impeachment were actually negated today by the court,” Burg told The Times of Israel.

‘The fact that a politician who was convicted of such a violation should be considered for public office is problematic, to say the least’

For many people, Burg added, Olmert was not such a bad prime minister. If he decided to throw his hat into the political ring again, there is no doubt that he has a good chance of getting that job again, said Burg, who served as an MK for more than 10 years and is currently working to establish a new left-wing think tank. “The minute he decides to run, it will be neck-to-neck, but his neck is one inch ahead of Netanyahu’s.”

Prof. Gideon Rahat, who runs Hebrew University’s Society and Politics in Israel program, believes that Olmert does want to return to political life, even if simply to show the world that the charges could not bring him down.

As for his prospects, Rahat said: “It all depends on how the media and the public will interpret the meaning of the court decision. Was he absolved — because there was a mountain of accusations and very little of that remains — or will he still be stained by the claim of corruption? It’s going to be a public relations struggle.”

Since Olmert would likely only return to politics as the head of a party, it is unclear whether anybody would want him, Rahat added.

First, though, there are those remaining legal hurdles. A jail term of more than three months and a determination of moral turpitude in the Investments Center or Holyland cases would see him barred from the Knesset for seven years.

“Olmert of course tries to present his conviction as a minor, procedural violation. But that’s not correct. It was a substantial violation; he was taking care of issues that his best friend was involved in,” said Doron Navot, a Haifa University political scientist specializing in corruption, of the Investments Center conviction. “No one would be convicted in an Israeli criminal court because of a mere procedural violation. This is Israel, not the USSR.”

Navot acknowledged that Tuesday’s court decision might sway public opinion in Olmert’s favor, but added that any sympathy gained this week would not outlive an electoral campaign.

“Olmert is very much associated with crony capitalism, a sort of capitalism that is less and less accepted in Israel, so it would be difficult for him to return to political office,” Navot said. Especially in light of the social protest movement, Olmert — who in the minds of many is a symbol for unholy alliances between politicians and businessmen — would have a hard time gaining the voters’ trust, he added.

Michael Partem, a lawyer and vice chairman of the Movement for Quality Government in Israel, concurs. Irrespective of whether the court will deem Olmert unfit for office because of moral turpitude, people would be well-advised to think twice before fantasizing about him entering the Prime Minister’s Office again, he told The Times of Israel. “First of all, the courts today found him guilty of a significant breach of trust — it’s a crime for which he could go to prison. The fact that a politician who was convicted of such a violation is considered for public office is problematic, to say the least.”

Secondly, Partem said, “The accusations against him from the Holyland case are very serious. He is not out of the woods yet, by any means.”

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