Election shakeup but Olmert remains: the Israeli elections last month threw up some surprising and interesting results.

Author:Joffe, Lawrence
Position:CURRENT AFFAIRS - Ehud Olmert

THE FAMOUS OLD railway conductor's cry of "all change" could well sum up politics in Israel in the week of 10 June 2007. Suddenly, old faces and former prime ministers reappeared at the top--Shimon Peres as president, and Ehud Barak, now leader of the venerable old Israel Labour Party. There were new faces, too: Ami Ayalon, ultimately defeated in the Labour primaries, but clearly a force to be reckoned with in the future. And there were big losers, not least Amir Peretz, outgoing Labour leader, vice-premier of Israel, and still defence minister.

Yet above it all remains Israel's prime minister, Ehud Olmert. How can it be that he still rules Israel, ask the analysts? Here is a quick survey of factors at play:

He faces seven charges of financial wrong-doing, an interim inquiry flayed him for bungling last year's war against Hizbullah, and his approval rating hovers around a derisory 4%.

Nor is that all. Pundits predict his Kadima Party may vanish from the ballot sheet before the next elections. Leftists decry Olmert's lukewarm response to the Saudi peace initiative. Rightists lampoon his inability to stop Qassam rocket attacks from Gaza onto Sderot. Even his foreign minister and fellow Kadima member, Tsipi Livni, has called on him to resign.

And yet the man remains in power. No wonder they call this the land of miracles, sigh the critics.

In fact, Olmert's resilience may have an entirely logical explanation. As a Knesset veteran of some three decades standing, and as mayor of Jerusalem for another 10 years, Ehud Olmert certainly knows his way around the political labyrinth. Few doubt that he is "clever". Unfortunately for him, and Israel, Olmert's smartness could be a double-edged sword.

Take the way he organised his coalition cabinet when he won elections earlier last year. As seasoned Israeli columnists observed, he put everyone in the wrong position, thus neutering potential rivals. Like a spider at the centre of a crazy web, he skilfully maintains ultimate control and guarantees his survival. Yet precisely the same ploy also created an uncertain government which, if exposed to the wrath of Israeli voters now, would surely spell his downfall.

Kadima and its chief coalition partner, Labour, are both sagging in the polls, while Likud appears on the ascendant. Thus no-one from either ruling party relishes the prospect of unseating Olmert, only to become a short-term prime minister doomed to lose the next elections to a buoyant Binyamin "Bibi" Netanyahu.

Put another way, no-one else seems to want the job. At least not now. There was talk that Israel's impressive foreign minister, Tsipi Livni, would challenge him for leadership of Kadima. She openly called for his...

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