TEL AVIV, Israel, June 13 (UPI) -- Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's weak, unpopular government Wednesday seemed to get a shot in the arm with the election of Nobel Peace Laureate Shimon Peres as Israel's next president and former Prime Minister Ehud Barak's victory in the race for the Labor Party's chairmanship.
Olmert's ratings hit almost rock bottom following last year's Second Lebanon War and a scathing preliminary report by the Winograd Committee that investigated it.
Olmert, a lawyer by training and veteran politician, and outgoing Defense Minister Amir Peretz, who is a professional trade unionist, lacked a security background, and it was evident in the way they rushed into and managed the Lebanon war.
Now Israel is facing new challenges as the radical Hamas is seizing control of the Gaza Strip and there are fears of war with Syria.
Barak is expected to be Israel's next defense minister. He was the country's most decorated soldier, a military chief of general staff, defense minister and prime minister. He focused on that background during his election campaign when he asked voters to think who they would want to see at the helm in a future war. Barak led the first round of the Labor Party primaries -- Labor is Olmert's main coalition partner -- but did not have enough votes to win that round, so a runoff was held Tuesday.
The final results, announced early Wednesday, showed he won 51 percent of the votes. In his victory speech he alluded to the fact he will be defense minister.
"I am committed to devoting all (my) energy and knowledge to strengthening the defense establishment and the IDF (Israel Defense Forces) and to returning Israel's power to deter and to decide (confrontations)," he said.
Several hours later Olmert's concerted efforts to help Peres win the presidency bore fruit.
Peres led the first round of voting running against former Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin of the hawkish Likud and former diplomat Colette Avital, now a Labor Party Knesset member. Peres was short of three votes to win the first round. His rivals realized the die was cast and bowed out.
Avital did so first, and Rivlin followed suit. He cried as he called for a unanimous vote for Peres and declared, "Long live the president."
In the following yea or nay vote Peres won 86 of the 119 ballots. The votes were secret but the returns suggested that the coalition, by and large, stuck together while some members of the hawkish right-wing opposition parties broke ranks and supported Peres.
It was, in part, a personal tribute to the 83-year-old statesman who was twice prime minister, three times foreign minister and at various times minister of finance, posts, information, regional development, defense and, until the election, vice premier and the minister responsible for development of the Negev and the Galilee.
His fame is more for his accomplishments in the various positions he held since he gave up being a cowman in a kibbutz and joined Israel's defense establishment. He became the Defense Ministry's director general at the age of 29, helped establish the Israel Aerospace Industries that this week launched another spy satellite, got France to help Israel build the nuclear reactor in Dimona, helped reduce inflation from 400 percent to 16 percent and negotiated the Oslo accords with the Palestine Liberation Organization for which he won the Nobel Peace Prize.
Gideon Rahat of the Hebrew University's political science department said Peres' election is good for Olmert, who will now have presidential backing, or at least no criticism.
Moreover, Peres was considered a candidate to replace Olmert should the Winograd Committee recommend he step down. Now, that candidacy is gone.
"Another candidate has to build his stature as an alternative, and that is not simple," Rahat noted.
Peres' upgrading also gives Olmert more leverage in the expected Cabinet reshuffle and an opportunity to bestow the vice premiership and another benefits to eager members of his Kadima Knesset faction.
The Cabinet reshuffle should include the appointment of a new finance minister to replace Avraham Hirchson, who is under police investigation, and two other Cabinet seats replacing Peres and another minister who resigned. However, Peres could be a problem for Olmert and the government.
Peres, scheduled to assume office July 15, is a man of vision who has been trying to push for a new Middle East, arguing that economic ties are more important that political boundaries.
When he was foreign minister he negotiated a peace agreement with Jordan's King Hussein and told Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir about it only when the deal was almost done. Shamir killed it. The Oslo process also began before Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin knew.
Biographer Michael Bar-Zohar noted Peres is a man "with many contacts, friends ... certainly not one who will sit at home and fill crossword puzzles."
The Israeli presidency is largely ceremonial. A president is supposed to be a unifying symbol, accept ambassadors' letters of credence and grant pardons.
"I clearly understand the president's role and I do not see the president's task a continuation of my other posts," Peres declared after his victory.
Olmert, no political novice, noted: "Even though you undertook that this post is no direct continuation of your other jobs, I know you."
|Additional Security Industry Stories|
REYKJAVIK, Iceland, June 19 (UPI) --Iceland's new prime minister this week cited the country's mackerel fishing dispute with the European Union as a prime example of the value of sovereignty.
PARIS, June 18 (UPI) --Engine-maker Pratt & Whitney has announced delivery of its 100th F135 propulsion system to the U.S. government for the F-35 Lightning II fighter.