Likud Begins Knesset Drive for New Elections

In light of the new allegations against PM Olmert, described as "severe," Likud MKs have begun canvassing Knesset support for new elections.

Hillel Fendel,

In light of the new criminal allegations against Prime Minister Olmert, which have been described as "severe," Likud MK Silvan Shalom and others have begun canvassing Knesset support for new elections.

Shalom said that new elections are a necessity, given the fact that this is the sixth police investigation against Olmert since he took office in early 2006. "Not to mention the latest escapade," Shalom added, "in which a Knesset Member was offered a Deputy-Ministership merely so that he would remain in the coalition."  The reference is to Pensioners MK Elchanan Glaser, who has since turned down the offer.

Quiet in Kadima and Labor
MKs in Olmert's Kadima party have been, for the most part, silent on the new criminal allegations against the Prime Minister, which came to light on Friday.  All ears were turned to Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, Olmert's greatest potential challenger within the party, but she has said nothing. 

Within the Labor Party, which is Kadima's largest coalition ally, calls for Olmert to resign - or, alternatively, for Labor to quit the government - are beginning to be heard.  Party leader Defense Minister Ehud Barak has not yet reacted publicly.  Back-bencher MK Shelly Yechimovitch, on the other hand, called immediately for Olmert to suspend himself, saying, "Israel cannot afford to have someone who is constantly being interrogated by the police at the helm of its regime."

The ruling Kadima party has two other coalition allies - Shas and the Pensioners.  The former has been threatening to quit for months, while nearly half of the latter actually did just that over the weekend.

Olmert's Pension Halved
Three of the Pensioner party's seven MKs have formed their own party, and declared that they are officially not part of the coalition. The new party is named "Justice for Pensioners," and is officially headed by Russian billionaire immigrant philanthropist Arcady Gaydamak.  The three-MK faction will be headed by Moshe Sharoni, who has long been at odds with Pensioners leader Rafi Eitan; the other two MKs are Elchanan Glaser and Sarah Marom-Shalev.

Olmert thus faces not only increasingly severe criminal/legal problems, but also a diminishing government coalition, which now has only a 4-seat majority (64 MKs out of 120 Knesset mandates).

A gag order has been placed on the latest criminal investigation against Ehud Olmert, although the Justice Ministry will reconsider it next week.  Police and other sources say the allegations include the most serious charges, and are accompanied by the most damning evidence, ever raised against Olmert. The police rushed to interrogate him on Friday morning under caution, to limit chances that he would coordinate his testimony with others, and announced that they will interrogate him again.

Even if the evidence justifies an indictment against Olmert, the process will clearly take many months. An indictment of a Prime Minister requires special approval from the Attorney General.  For this reason, a change in the government, if it occurs, is not likely to be the result of judicial/legal developments, but rather political.  It is assumed that Olmert will either call new elections on his own, or his government will be toppled in a no-confidence motion.

In the meanwhile, Olmert is broadcasting "business as usual," and plans to meet with visiting U.S. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice later Sunday.