What happens if they press charges?
PRIME MINISTER Ehud Olmert’s aides have been promising reporters, in off-the-record briefings, that the current investigation will blow over, just as others have in the past. But even according to what has been published so far, under the constraints of the court’s gag-order, this is clearly not the case. In previous investigations, the police and Justice Ministry officials trod very carefully, questioning first every possible witness in the outer circles before reaching the Prime Minister. This time they believed that the evidence in hand was important enough to take straight to the top.
Part of the urgency is due to the need to secure the testimony of the foreign citizen involved. Once that is done, it will be up to Attorney General Menahem Mazuz to decide on the speed with which to continue and when, if at all, to press charges.
This is seen as the watershed moment, since legal precedent mandates that a cabinet member, once indicted, must resign. But things could well move at a much quicker pace.
Mr Olmert is a hostage not only of the legal process, but also of his coalition. So far, save for two rebel Kadima Knesset members, there have been no calls within the ruling party for his resignation. Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, who will automatically fill in for Mr Olmert if he resigns, has said that she has full trust in the justice system and called to wait for matters to take their course. The main coalition partner, Labour Leader and Defence Minister Ehud Barak, said that he hoped the accusations would be proven unfounded. But these statements cover feverish calculations going on in both parties.
Even if an indictment is still months away, the publication of the police’s suspicions, expected at the latest at the beginning of next week, may put Mr Olmert in an untenable position. Senior Kadima members will not want to remain any longer on the deck of a rapidly sinking ship. Neither will Labour leaders be interested in staying allied with a prime minister under such circumstances. If the allegations seem strong enough, they will not allow Mr Olmert to hang around waiting for the indictment.
Kadima is the only party large enough to form a coalition in the Knesset’s present structure. But Ms Livni, who was shown in a newspaper cartoon this week looking at the portrait of Golda Meir, Israel’s first and so far only female prime minister, will have a tough job convincing other ministers not to challenge her leadership.
Shaul Mofaz, Avi Dichter and Meir Sheetrit all see themselves as worthier prime ministers. Each of them will have to decide whether to accept a Livni premiership for the time being or risk party turmoil that could bring about early elections.
Mr Barak is making similar calculations. He desperately wants to be PM, but besides lagging behind in the polls, he has not even consolidated control over his own party. A Livni-Barak partnership could be his only option. The coalition would still need the support of the smaller parties to survive, but one useful indication came this week when senior Shas members said they would have no problem serving in a Livni government.
Opposition leader Binyamin Netanyahu will try to chip away enough MKs to force a no-confidence vote that will lead to elections and allow him to realise his lead in the polls. But the coalition’s survival instinct may prove stronger.
Mr Olmert will not go without a fight. His confident statements this week on the possibilities of achieving peace are aimed to raise doubts among politicians, investigators and journalists about whether it is wise to depose a prime minister at a potentially critical juncture for the peace process.
Ironically, it might be the Palestinians who hold Mr Olmert’s last chance of survival. An announcement by them, or the Syrians, of a significant advance could give him a glimmer of hope. But even that probably would not be enough to save a totally discredited leader.