Like the military option against Iran, the option of Ehud Olmert returning to the Israeli premiership has never been taken off the table. Many Israelis, including Olmert, believe that he is the only political figure who could challenge and even defeat Prime Minister Netanyahu in the next general elections. This is due to the fact that only Olmert, a former PM, can claim to have the experience necessary to lead Israel in turbulent times and reach tough decisions with regard to its security.
Ehud Olmert was and remains a gifted politician. Channel 10’s political commentator Raviv Druker once said that Olmert has mastered the art of massaging the egos of fellow politicians. It was his keen political senses that enabled Olmert to survive the Second Lebanon War debacle and remain in office even as he was being investigated by the police with regard to numerous corruption scandals. Since resigning the Premiership, Olmert has acted as a Prime Minister in absentia appearing before audiences abroad, taking part in world summits and criticizing Netanyahu’s lack of commitment to the peace process, his mishandling of the strategic relationship with the US and his obsession with Iran.
Analyzing the current political landscape reveals that Olmert’s assessment is not without merit as there is no other political figure who could pose a challenge to Netanyahu. The head of the Labor party, Isaac Hertzog, is not viewed as a serious contender for the premiership. This is not because Hertzog lacks talent but because he himself does not to believe he is up to the job. Since being elected head of the Labor party Hertzog has refrained from attacking Netanyahu’s government. This is part of the all too familiar ceremony in which the Labor party crawls to another Netanyahu government. Isaac does not seek the crown nor is he willing to storm the castle and seize it. He would much rather receive a knighthood and a seat at the round table of government.
Yair Lapid, head of the second largest party in the Knesset and former kingmaker, has turned into the court jester. Lapid’s approval ratings continue to plummet and he is now the least popular politician in Israel. Lapid’s attempts to label each law he proposes as “historic” have also failed as some Israelis see past his spin while others simply like to watch him suffer. Foreign Minister Lieberman is in the midst of a re-branding process in which he has launched a new Lieberman brand, that of the responsible adult in the Netanyahu government. The Foreign Minister now takes time to complement the Americans on their efforts to achieve peace, visits European capitals and avoids controversies. The suggestions to bomb Egypt are no longer typed under his letterhead. As a result, Lieberman is in political limbo. He has abandoned his political base and has yet to create a new one.
In this political topography, it is possible that only Olmert can challenge Bibi. After all, what some Israelis remember from his term as PM is not the Second Lebanon War but the assault on a Syrian nuclear reactor that was attributed to Israel by the foreign press. In retrospect, there are even those who have suggested that the Second Lebanon War was not the fiasco it appeared to be in 2006. Since that war, Hassan Nasrallah has barely left his bunker and despite several Israeli attacks on Hezbollah targets the Lebanese terror organization has refrained from launching rockets at Israel and breaking the ceasefire signed with Olmert. This is what deterrence looks like.
Yet the Olmert option does not rest solely on lack of leadership or a new historical perspective. Olmert is committed to ending the conflict with the Palestinians by creating an independent Palestinian State which shall have control over most of the West Bank and whose capital shall reside somewhere in vicinity of Jerusalem. Like other members of the right wing, Olmert understands that ending the Palestinian conflict is the most important task of any Israeli leader. All other Israeli interests rest on the creation of Palestine. It is this epiphany by Olmert that serves as the foundation of the Olmert option. The disciples of the battered and bruised left wing, as well those belonging to the political center, will vote for Olmert out of two motives: hatred of Bibi Netanyahu and a longing for peace. The rest of the votes necessary for a victory will be supplied by Netanyahu himself who is always willing to self-destruct.
However, a dramatic turn of events now threatens to topple Olmert’s house of cards as Shula Zaken, Olmert’s lifelong confidant and human shield, is now willing to break her silence thereby removing the Olmert option off the table once and for all.
Whether Zaken, who served as Olmert’s chief of staff throughout his entire public career, testifies in court or not is irrelevant. All that is needed for Olmert to vanish from the political map is for Zaken to truthfully address the allegations against Olmert. This can be done in court or in an interview to the press for even if he acquitted in the courtroom, Olmert could still be convicted in the public sphere. Shula may verify what we all fear; that in addition to being a brilliant politician Olmert was also the most morally corrupt man to hold the office of Prime Minister, a man whose office reeked from the stench of laundered money, kick-backs and unbridled hedonism. There is no need to search for the Israeli Francis Underwood, he may already be here.
Mrs. Zaken is the only person able to verify the allegations against Olmert as she was at the crossroads on which all interested parties met. Thus, in one week Zaken has turned from Olmert’s knight in shining armor to Bibi Netanyahu’s crown jewel. Only she can remove the Olmert option from his table, only she can protect his reign.
Shula is now the kingmaker.