Analysis: Israel's Olmert on the skids

By MARTIN SIEFF  |  May 28, 2008 at 10:36 AM
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WASHINGTON, May 28 (UPI) -- Ehud Olmert's days as prime minister of Israel are numbered, maybe in the single digits: His powerful and respected defense minister, Ehud Barak, has called on him to resign.

As the most brilliant and successful commando leader in Israeli history, Barak always knew when to move in for the kill, and he has chosen now to make his move against the hapless and embattled Olmert.

On Wednesday Barak announced he would pull his Labor Party -- which, with 19 seats, is the second-largest bloc in the Knesset, the Israeli Parliament -- out of Olmert's coalition government unless the prime minister resigns or takes a leave of absence after new allegations that Olmert took $150,000 in bribes or illegal campaign donations.

Olmert denies the charges. But he took a serious blow Tuesday when U.S. entrepreneur Morris Talansky told a Jerusalem court he had secretly supplied Olmert with $150,000, mainly cash in envelopes, for 13 years before the Israeli politician became prime minister.

Talansky claimed that $25,000 of the money was to give Olmert a luxury holiday in Italy.

Barak's actions following Talansky's claims could mean curtains for Olmert. The prime minister's own ruling Kadima Party has only 29 seats of its own in the Knesset. If Barak pulls Labor out, the government will certainly fall and early elections will have to be held. Given the collapse in Olmert's national credibility, those elections are seen as a straight contest between Barak and his Labor Party, and the nationalist Likud Party led by former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Olmert started off strong when he succeeded revered veteran Prime Minister Ariel Sharon at the beginning of 2006, and he quickly won a general election with the new centrist Kadima Party that Sharon had founded. But within only a few months Olmert was reviled as no Israeli prime minister has been since Menahem Begin's invasion of Lebanon went sour in 1982-83, for his catastrophic bungling of the July 2006 mini-war with Hezbollah in southern Lebanon.

Olmert lost his defense minister and key ally, Labor Party leader Amir Peretz, because of Peretz's clownish performance in that war. Peretz was quickly replaced as both Labor leader and defense minister by Barak, a former armed forces chief of staff and prime minister.

Unlike Peretz, Barak has never been a friend of Olmert and is widely believed to despise him. In contrast to Olmert, Barak has won high marks for restoring effective administration and focus on strategic priorities at the Kirya, the massive Defense Ministry complex of buildings in Tel Aviv.

Barak re-established a healthy respect for Israel's military prowess in its more hostile neighbors by masterminding an airstrike against a key strategic facility, believed by many to have contained potential nuclear weapons material, in Syria. The airstrike was also a significant deterrent warning to Syria's main ally, Iran, as the Israeli combat aircraft neutralized the Russian-made S-300 anti-aircraft missile systems that both Syria and Iran depend upon.

Barak also acted fast and decisively to get Israel's most crucial defense program -- its ambitious ballistic missile defense projects to defend the country against the threat of nuclear annihilation from Iran -- back on track. Bottlenecks caused by administrative incompetence had derailed the program's urgent timetables during Peretz's tenure as defense chief.

By contrast, Olmert's standing with the Israeli public has gone from bad to dire. U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's peace process with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, which she launched with such fanfare at Annapolis only six months ago, is already dead as a dodo. Olmert had desperately latched onto it, but it has given him nothing. And this week 61 members of the Knesset -- a clear majority -- torpedoed Olmert's clandestine and widely distrusted efforts to broker a peace deal with Syria. They publicly backed a resolution forbidding the government to cede the Golan Heights back to Syria. The 61 Knesset members included Eli Yishai, the leader of the Shas Party, which with 12 seats is Olmert's other most important coalition partner along with Labor.

Over the past two years Olmert has shown outstanding talent at only one thing -- hanging on to power when polls repeatedly showed that almost nobody wanted him to. Now, his time is finally running out.

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