It’s one of Washington’s worst kept secrets: President Barack Obama’s administration would prefer Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to lose the Israeli elections in January 2013. Netanyahu is not only too hawkish on the Palestinian issue and Iran for the White House’s comfort, he has the added burden of a fraught personal relationship with Obama — cemented by his perceived public endorsement of Mitt Romney in the U.S. presidential election.
In theory, a Netanyahu defeat is not beyond the realm of possibility. He is popular in Israel but not loved, trusted as prime minister but not revered. His command in the polls is steady — essentially undisturbed since he took office in 2009 — but not overwhelming. He appears to have suffered somewhat from the inconclusive outcome of the recent military operation in Gaza — though if he lost any votes, they were to the right rather than the center, meaning that his electoral bloc remains intact. Among his biggest assets is a lack of viable alternatives: The leaders of the two largest parties in the current opposition are either too unpopular (Kadima’s Shaul Mofaz) or too inexperienced (Labor’s Shelly Yacimovich) to credibly challenge him.
Little wonder, therefore, that eyes have been fixed on potential new entrants to the political arena — or, as is often the case in Israeli politics, recycled entrants. The return of former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has been the most anticipated of these political earthquakes: Merely four years after leaving office under indictment for corruption charges (of which he was largely acquitted, pending appeal) Olmert appears to be the only man capable of mounting a serious challenge to Netanyahu. In truth, however, his chances of defeating Netanyahu remain lower than wishful thinkers in Washington may like to believe. His imminent announcement on whether he runs is therefore unlikely to alter the outcome of the elections.
The case for an Olmert candidacy has been threefold. First, he has the gravitas and experience that no other opposition leader offers. Although his premiership was marred by public criticism of his leadership in the 2006 Lebanon war (culminating in the Winograd Commission report), he remains one of the most experienced leaders in the Israeli political system. He has led Israel to war in Gaza, like Netanyahu, and handled the country’s most tightly held strategic secrets. In contrast to other opposition leaders — journalists-turned-politicians Yacimovich or Yair Lapid of the newly formed Yesh Atid (“There is a Future”) party — he can credibly challenge Netanyahu on the national security front.
Olmert can also use his foreign affairs experience to capitalize on Netanyahu’s electoral vulnerabilities. Olmert maintained a close relationship with the United States during his term, a clear shortcoming of Netanyahu in the wake of Obama’s reelection. On dealing with the Iranian nuclear program, Olmert enjoys the trust and support of many in the security establishment, in contrast to the near revolt against Netanyahu’s leadership by several former security chiefs. Unlike Netanyahu, Olmert provides a clear vision for trying to resolve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, and negotiated in earnest with Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas. Though the Israeli public is highly skeptical of the chances of peace in the near future, it remains supportive, in theory, of a two-state solution.
All that may be true, but it will count for nothing if Olmert can’t forge a governing majority in the Knesset. The second argument for Olmert running has been, accordingly, that he alone has the ability to forge post-election alliances with members of Netanyahu’s right-wing/religious bloc. And yet, this argument was less convincing from the start.
It’s true that Olmert, a politician of considerable wit and charm, maintains close relationships with many figures who are now in Netanyahu’s camp. One of them is Aryeh Der’i, a leader of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, who himself returned to politics after serving a prison sentence for bribery. Another is Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman — a leader who offers a mix of inflammatory, nearly xenophobic, rhetoric, but appears pragmatic on some issues of substance. Both Der’i and Lieberman have joined centrist coalitions in the past — and some assumed Olmert could lure them away from Netanyahu’s coalition.
But while Olmert’s political skill sets him apart from other opposition leaders, it does not provide him a path to victory on its own. There are significant political obstacles in splitting Netanyahu’s allies from him: Der’i, for his part, shares his party’s leadership with the ultra-hawkish Eli Yishai, and the final say in Shas belongs to Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the 92-year old patron of the party. Shas’s electorate, moreover, is firmly right-wing and clearly prefers Netanyahu to any centrist candidate. Nor would Lieberman opt for a centrist government if given the choice, as he proved by forming a pre-election alliance with Netanyahu. For both Shas and Lieberman, a centrist coalition would be palatable only if a right-wing coalition is numerically impossible. In other words, to win the post-election coalition building, Olmert would have to beat Netanyahu in the ballot box.
The third and final argument in favor of Olmert running was that he could potentially steal the votes of moderate right-wing voters. There’s some logic to the idea: Given Netanyahu’s shift to the right through his electoral alliance with Lieberman and the very right-wing list produced this week in the primaries of his Likud party, there appears to be room in the center for a serious challenge. If enough moderate right-wing voters find the Likud’s right-wing shift too distasteful, they may prefer a moderate like Olmert.
Indeed, if Olmert could attract enough right-wing voters to the center, bringing Netanyahu’s bloc below 60 (of 120) Knesset members, all bets would be off on the coalition building process. Polling, however, has not been kind to this theory: The right-wing bloc has appeared poised to win around 65 seats throughout the campaign, and the result was not much changed when surveys asked about a hypothetical Olmert run. Nevertheless, an Olmert-led centrist coalition remains the only plausible path to a Netanyahu defeat.
And even if Olmert were to announce his intention to run, his legal troubles may still come back to haunt him. The State Prosecutor’s office has announced that it will appeal his partial acquittal. A court decision on a separate corruption case against him is still pending, and legal challenge would likely be mounted against his appointment as prime minister even if he were to win the elections. Many voters on the center-left, moreover, will find Olmert’s legal troubles unsavory (even in his partial acquittal, the judges’ language in describing Olmert’s actions was harsh). Yacimovich has already attacked Olmert on this front, saying that anyone who backs his political return “supports the destruction of the [political] system.”
Netanyahu, in other words, remains the heavy favorite to form the next Israeli government regardless of the jockeying in the center. And yet, despite these obstacles, Olmert has been eager to return to the political game. He knows well the cardinal rule of Israeli politics articulated by Ariel Sharon — himself, once a disgraced minister of defense who climbed his way back to the top of Israel’s leadership. Israeli politics, Sharon noted, are like a Ferris Wheel: Sometimes you find yourself on top and sometime below, but the trick is to stay on the wheel. Olmert himself, one should remember, first ascended to the prime minister’s office in unlikely circumstances, after it was thrust upon him following Sharon’s debilitating stroke.
Should Olmert decide to re-enter the political game, we will be in for a contentious, perhaps dramatic campaign. Those in Washington hoping for a Netanyahu defeat, however, are likely to be disappointed.