A day after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced that he would be calling general elections “as soon as possible,” Israeli politicians and analysts were Wednesday speculating frantically about a series of former top figures who just might be planning comebacks.
At the head of the will they/won’t they? list was former prime minister Ehud Olmert, who relinquished the prime ministership and the leadership of his Kadima party four years ago to battle a series of corruption allegations — prompting the elections that brought Netanyahu to power in February 2009. Olmert was convicted of breach of trust in July, and given a suspended jail term last month, but that punishment was not so severe as to bar him from a return to the Knesset. And although he is still on trial in a real-estate corruption case, and could face an appeal from the state attorney in two major fraud cases for which he was acquitted, aides to Olmert did not rule out a comeback Wednesday.
Several members of Kadima, seeing poll after poll predicting that their party will crash in the elections under new leader Shaul Mofaz, are urging Olmert to make a return. MKs Dahlia Itzik and Yoel Hasson publicly encouraged him to do so Wednesday, with Itzik indicating that Mofaz could be persuaded to step aside if Olmert wanted to retake the Kadima reins — which may have been news to Mofaz. According to Channel 2, the former prime minister is waiting to see some more survey results before making a decision; if the polls do not predict that he could oust Netanyahu, Channel 2 said, then Olmert is unlikely to attempt a return.
Olmert’s successor as Kadima leader, Tzipi Livni, was also said to be awaiting further statistics to gauge whether she should return to the political fray. Livni chose not to close a deal with Shas after Olmert resigned in 2008, and thereby gave up the opportunity to succeed him as prime minister, because she thought the financial terms of an alliance with the ultra-Orthodox party were too damaging for the wider national interest. However, her declared commitment to integrity in politics was no great vote winner even within Kadima, which ousted her as its leader in favor of Mofaz in March.
As with Olmert, analysts on Wednesday speculated that Livni would not want to return only to be a second-level minister. However, recent surveys would indicate that she is most unlikely to see findings that predict she has a shot at the prime ministership.
The third potential comeback kid, Aryeh Deri, has been reported in recent days to have patched up relations with the Shas party’s spiritual leader, former chief rabbi Ovadia Yosef. Some speculate that the party’s Yosef-led Council of Torah Sages is looking for a formula whereby the charismatic Deri — whose meteoric political career was halted when he was convicted and jailed for taking bribes in 2000 — can return to the top leadership of the party, without the current chairman, Deputy Prime Minister Eli Yishai, being humiliated.
Yishai said Wednesday that Shas politicians would always “heed the decisions of the Council of Torah Sages.” Privately, he was reported to be seeking a public confirmation from Yosef in the rabbi’s weekly Saturday night sermon that he will continue as party chairman, while offering to work with Deri if a satisfactory position in the Shas hierarchy can be found for him.
In recent months, there have been suggestions that Deri might form a party of his own, and that this might shift some votes from the center-right to the center-left, but the former interior minister is now said to prefer to come back to the Shas fold.
In other news on the unofficial first day of the election campaign — with the polling date as yet unconfirmed — Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein was reported to be set to make a decision before the elections on whether to prosecute Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman in a long-running corruption case.
Several members of the various social action movements that mobilized hundreds of thousands of Israelis to come to the streets in the summer of 2011 to protest economic inequalities, meanwhile, were reported to be considering joining Labor or Yair Lapid’s new Yesh Atid party. Stav Shafir, one of the leaders of the protests, was cited as a likely Labor recruit.
Within Netanyahu’s Likud, preparations were taking shape for party primaries to choose the Knesset slate in the coming weeks. Netanyahu, Channel 2 reported, is anxious to keep most of the party’s serving MKs high on the slate, and to ensure that the hawkish Moshe Feiglin and his supporters are excluded from the list of candidates. The report said Feiglin has little chance of gaining a position that would see him enter the Knesset, but he has surprised the pundits with strong showings in the past.