- The Washington Times - Friday, August 1, 2008

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Ehud Olmert’s announcement that he will not run in the Kadima Party primary brings a close to his tumultuous two-and-a-half years as prime minister of Israel - almost. He will remain in office at least until Sept. 17, when Kadima holds a primary. After that, the winner (the leading candidates are Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz) will have a grace period of roughly a month to form a new government. If that does not work, elections must be held within 90 days - a scenario that would leave Mr. Olmert in office through the fall.

The most likely scenario, however, is that Kadima will form a new Israeli government some time in the fall - largely because Kadima and its No. 1 coalition partner, the Labor Party, are far behind in the polls, and would in all likelihood lose badly to the hawkish Likud Party. The next Israeli election is not scheduled to occur until 2010, but Israeli prime ministers rarely complete their entire four-year term.

Barring a cataclysmic political event, Likud, headed by former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, appears likely to win the next Israeli election. But one caveat is in order: To some extent, Kadima’s current unpopularity results from the corruption scandals that eventually forced out Mr. Olmert. Neither Mrs. Livni nor Gen. Mofaz carries as much political baggage as Mr. Olmert, and either of them would be in a stronger political position as leader of Kadima.

But the political problems facing Kadima (the centrist party formed in November 2005 by then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon) go deeper than the corruption investigations of Mr. Olmert. Both Kadima and Labor plunged in the polls after the 2006 war with Hezbollah ended in a draw. That was when Mr. Olmert’s political free-fall began and Labor began to lose support, and neither party has recovered. If Mr. Netanyahu becomes prime minister, look for Israel’s policy toward Gaza to change - perhaps dramatically. Mr. Netanyahu clashed with Mr. Sharon over his decision to unilaterally withdraw Israeli soldiers and civilians from Gaza three years ago, and resigned as minister of finance in the Likud government headed by Mr. Sharon to protest the Gaza pullout. Mr. Netanyahu warned at the time that if Israel withdrew from Gaza, it would become a haven for terrorists and events have proven him correct. It would not come as a surprise if Mr. Netanyahu, as prime minister, responded to rocket attacks from Gaza with large-scale military incursions and retaking of territory there. If Mr. Netanyahu is elected prime minister in the near future, he will have a mandate to go much farther than Mr. Olmert in dealing with terror in Gaza.

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