- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 31, 2008

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

His powerful and respected defense minister, Ehud Barak, has called on him to resign.

As the most brilliant and successful commando leader in Israeli history, Mr. Barak always knew when to move in for the kill, and he has chosen now to make his move against the hapless and embattled Mr. Olmert.

On Wednesday, Mr. Barak announced he would pull his Labor Party, which with 19 seats is the second-largest bloc in the Israeli parliament, out of Mr. Olmert´s coalition government unless the prime minister resigns or takes a leave of absence after new allegations that Mr. Olmert took $500,000 in bribes or illegal campaign donations.

Olmert denies the charges. But he took a serious blow Tuesday when U.S. entrepreneur Morris Talansky told a Jerusalem court that he had secretly supplied Mr. Olmert with $500,000, mainly cash in envelopes, for 13 years before the Israeli politician became prime minister. Mr. Talansky claimed that $25,000 of the money was to give Mr. Olmert a luxury holiday in Italy.

Mr. Barak’s actions following Mr. Talansky’s claims could mean curtains for Mr. Olmert. Mr. Olmert´s own ruling centrist Kadima Party has only 29 seats of its own in the parliament. If Mr. Barak pulls Labor out, the government will certainly fall and early elections will have to be held. Given the collapse in Mr. Olmert´s national credibility, those elections are seen as a straight contest between Mr. Barak and his Labor Party, and the nationalist Likud Party led by former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Mr. Olmert started off strong when he succeeded revered veteran Prime Minister Ariel Sharon at the beginning of 2006 and he quickly won a general election with the new Kadima Party that Mr. Sharon had founded. But within only a few months, Mr. Olmert was reviled as no Israeli prime minister has been since Menahem Begin’s invasion of Lebanon went sour in 1982-83 for his catastrophic bungling of the July 2006 mini-war with Hezbollah in southern Lebanon.

Mr. Olmert lost his defense minister and key ally, Labor Party leader Amir Peretz, because of Mr. Peretz´s clownish performance in that war. Mr. Peretz was quickly replaced as both Labor leader and defense minister by Mr. Barak, a former armed forces chief of staff and prime minister.

Unlike Mr. Peretz, Mr. Barak has never been a friend of Mr. Olmert and is widely believed to despise him. In contrast to Mr. Olmert, Mr. Barak has won high marks for restoring effective administration and focus on strategic priorities at the Kirya, the massive defense ministry building in Tel Aviv.

Mr. Barak re-established a healthy respect for Israel´s military prowess in its more hostile neighbors by masterminding an air strike against a key strategic facility, believed by many to have contained potential nuclear weapons material, in Syria. The air strike was also a significant deterrent warning to Syria´s main ally Iran as the Israeli combat aircraft neutralized the Russian-made S-300 anti-aircraft missile systems that both Syria and Iran depend upon.

Mr. Barak also acted fast and decisively to get Israel´s most crucial defense program — its ambitious ballistic missile defense projects to defend the country against the threat of nuclear annihilation from Iran — back on track. Bottlenecks caused by administrative incompetence had derailed the programs urgent timetables during Mr. Peretz´s tenure as defense chief.

By contrast, Mr. Olmert´s standing with the Israeli public has gone from bad to dire. U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice´s peace process with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas that she launched with such fanfare at Annapolis only half a year ago is already dead as a dodo. Mr. Olmert had desperately latched on to it but it has given him nothing. And this week, the parliament by a clear majority torpedoed Mr. Olmert´s clandestine and widely distrusted efforts to broker a peace deal with Syria. Some 61 of the 120 Knesset members backed a resolution forbidding the government to cede the Golan Heights back to Syria. They included Eli Yishai, the leader of the Shas Party, which with 12 seats is Mr. Olmert´s other most important coalition partner along with Labor.

Over the past two years, Mr. Olmert has shown outstanding talent at only one thing — hanging on to power when polls repeatedly showed that almost nobody wanted him to. Now, his time is finally running out.

Martin Sieff is chief news analyst for United Press International.

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