Aides: Israel’s ex-PM Olmert considering comeback

JERUSALEM — Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is considering a political comeback to challenge incumbent Benjamin Netanyahu in the upcoming elections, aides said Wednesday.

With new parliamentary polls set for early 2013, Olmert is considered the candidate with the best chance of unseating Netanyahu at the ballot box, despite a precarious legal situation that may stand in his way if he gets elected.

Olmert was recently cleared of the most serious of several bribery allegations that forced him out of office in 2009 but is still bogged down in a separate bribery trial that leaves his political future in doubt.

Olmert was deeply unpopular while in office, but he has enjoyed a revival in recent months, with many fearing he was unfairly removed from office for allegations that ultimately did not stand up in court.

Commentators have also lamented the breakdown in Mideast peace efforts under Netanyahu and wondered whether Olmert, who conducted more than a year of intense negotiations with the Palestinians, might have delivered an agreement if he had not been driven from power.

“I can tell you that he is pondering it and the political system is putting a lot of pressure on him,” his former Cabinet secretary and confidante Yisrael Maimon told Israel’s Army Radio station.

With Netanyahu’s hawkish Likud party far ahead in the polls, Israel’s centrist and leftist parties are desperate for a candidate who can unite the fragmented and leaderless opposition parties under an umbrella that can mount a serious challenge.

Analysts predict Olmert is the only candidate who could prevent Netanyahu from a sweeping re-election. Since he stepped down, his Kadima Party has seen its public support evaporate under new leader Shaul Mofaz.

If Olmert jumps back into politics, it is unclear if he will rejoin Kadima or a new political constellation. Kadima lawmaker Dalia Itzik said she hopes Olmert retakes Kadima, with Mofaz’s acquiescence.

“I want to see him as the prime minister of Israel and since I know Mofaz and what a responsible man he is, I am sure that at this time we all need to put our jealousies, anger and egos aside and do what is best for Israel,” she said.

Former Cabinet Minister and close Olmert friend Haim Ramon is leading the effort to create a new centrist bloc. Ramon confirmed he had reached out to the former prime minister about heading it.

“I am talking to Ehud Olmert. He has obviously not made his decisions and we need to wait patiently,” he told Army Radio.

Aware of the threat an Olmert candidacy could pose to Netanyahu, a Likud lawmaker has asked Israel central election committee to urgently discuss whether Olmert is eligible to run.

Olmert was forced out of office nearly four years ago under the cloud of scandal, accused of accepting cash-stuffed envelopes from an American political supporter and allegedly double billing supporters for overseas trips. In July, the court cleared him of those serious allegations, convicting him only on the lesser charge of breach of trust for helping allocate government contracts to a friend’s associates. He is still engaged in a separate trial for his alleged role in a Jerusalem real estate bribery case.

His legal trouble leaves his political prospects in limbo.

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