Labor Party head Ehud Barak
Labor Party head Ehud Barak

Defense Minister Ehud Barak dramatically called this afternoon for Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to remove himself from office.  Barak heads Labor, the government coalition's second-largest party.  His announcement followed a long meeting between Olmert and Barak, called by the Prime Minister.

Barak said that if Olmert does not step down, "we will act to advance the elections." He did not specify a date, and said, "We are not standing with a stop-watch, but it should happen very soon."

The Labor Party leader said that Olmert can choose any one of several options: resignation, vacation, temporary suspension, or the like.

Barak also called on the members of Olmert's Kadima party to "make a self-reckoning" and choose its way: "If they choose a replacement, we will consider further cooperation with Kadima, but if Kadima does not act, and if a government that is satisfactory to us is not formed, then we will work to advance the date of the elections."

Barak has previously called on Olmert to step down, before the Olmert corruption scandal began.  A year ago, shortly before he was elected to lead the Labor Party, he said that in light of the Winograd Report criticizing Olmert's performance during the Second Lebanon War, Olmert should reach personal conclusions and resign from office. 

Barak said then, "If on March 28, I am elected chairman of the Labor Party, and the prime minister has yet to reach personal conclusions, I will act to form a wide consensus in my party and with the faction leaders to determine an appropriate and agreed date for elections."

However, Barak never acted to advance the elections, and in fact backtracked from his demands.

Despite very public pronouncements by Barak's own former campaign manager that Barak himself is no stranger to the culture of "money-stuffed envelopes," Barak is reported to have expressed, in meetings with Labor Party colleagues, "disgust" at Olmert's behavior. 

Barak, during the press briefing, related to this point, calling it "nonsense," but adding that "one does not need a magnifying glass to see the difference" between the two cases. He did not elaborate.

Barak further told his party colleagues that Labor, as the second-largest party in the Knesset, need not be dragged along behind the initiatives of others, but should rather lead its own political moves.

The ball is now in Kadima's court, where either the Prime Minister himself will make an announcement, or party members will take actions of their own against or in favor of Olmert.  The party leadership, including wannabe-leaders Livni, Mofaz, Sheetrit and Dichter, will have to come up with an agreed-upon approach regarding either Olmert's remaining in office, or the identity of his replacement, or a modus vivendi for choosing one.

Within Labor, MK Yoram Marciano criticized Barak for not calling immediately for new elections. "He acted as if he has no confidence that Labor can win, and rather called on Kadima to choose its new leader," Marciano said.