Could Ehud Olmert challenge Netanyahu now?

Ynet quotes unnamed associates of the former prime minister who say he’s weighing a comeback

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) with Ehud Olmert in 2009. (Yossi Zamir/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) with Ehud Olmert in 2009. (Yossi Zamir/Flash90)

Ehud Olmert, who last month was acquitted of (most of) the serious corruption charges against him, may be ready to make a political comeback.

Ysirael Maimon, an associate of the former prime minister, joined a chorus of unnamed sources who were quoted as saying that Olmert — who took over the Kadima party following Ariel Sharon’s illness and led the country during the 2006 Second Lebanon War — was seriously considering attempting to lead a centrist party in the early elections called for by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Tuesday.

“When so many people approach you and tell you that you can replace the prime minister, it’s worth giving it a second thought,” Maimon said.

Former justice minister and Olmert associate Haim Ramon confirmed Wednesday that he was holding talks with Olmert over the possibility of him joining a new centrist party, but said that Olmert had yet to decide on a return to political life.

“I hope that in the upcoming days we will be able to produce an alternative to Netanyahu and replace him come election day,” said Ramon. “The most important thing is to bring an end to the Netanyahu government and lead to a government that is not an alliance of ultra-Orthodox and extreme rightists.

Labor MK Shelly Yachimovich slammed the idea of Olmert returning to a national leadership role. “I can’t stand even the idea that a corrupt man, who underwent thousands of criminal investigations and led a violent delegitimization campaign against the justice system, would consider himself leadership potential,” said Yachimovich.

Other party leaders were more reserved in their statements. Both Yisrael Betrynu leader Avigdor Liberman and Shas chairman Eli Yishai told reporters they would not comment on Olmert’s possible return to politics until he announced it formally.

Education Minister Gideon Sa’ar said the Likud was not afraid to face any political opponent in the battle for the Israeli voter. He said that no single candidate, including Olmert, could rally the center-left-leaning public to their cause

The field of centrist candidates could be a crowded one, with former Kadima party chairwoman Tzipi Livni potentially competing with current Kadima chairman Shaul Mofaz and prospective centrist party leader Yair Lapid.

In July, Olmert told associates that he would return to politics and win the prime ministership as a centrist candidate, launching his campaign upon completion of his legal battles.

Olmert was forced out of office nearly four years ago under the cloud of scandal, accused of accepting cash-stuffed envelopes from an American political supporter and allegedly double billing supporters for overseas trips. In July, the court cleared him of those serious allegations, convicting him only on the lesser charge of breach of trust for helping allocate government contracts to a friend’s associates. He is still engaged in a separate trial for his alleged role in a Jerusalem real estate bribery case.

His legal trouble leaves his political prospects in limbo.

Emanuel Gross, a legal analyst at the University of Haifa, said Olmert was technically clear to run for office and serve as a lawmaker since the court did not sentence him to jail time or rule that he bears moral turpitude for his actions.

But the later ruling could be appealed in court, he said, and so long as he was entangled in an ongoing trial he was barred from serving as a minister or a prime minister.

“He can head a party,” Gross said. “But if that party wins it’s not certain that he can head the government.”

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