A day after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called early elections, the rumor mill over the possible return of his immediate predecessor, Ehud Olmert, is working overtime and dividing the political world.
Haim Ramon, an associate of Olmert's who is trying to forge an anti-Netanyahu alliance of Center-Left parties, said Wednesday that Olmert had yet to decide on a return to politics, less than three months after becoming the first Israeli head of government to be convicted on a criminal felony.
"He has yet to make his decision, we have to be patient," Ramon told Army Radio Wednesday. Sources at Kadima have confirmed that Olmert is under pressure to announce his return to politics. Political analysts believe Kadima will remove its current leader, MK Shaul Mofaz, and replace him with Olmert should the latter choose to run, as this would be their only way of staying alive as a party come election time.
Olmert is seen by many as the only possible candidate remotely capable of unseating Netanyahu in the upcoming elections, scheduled for early 2013.
Ramon also told Army Radio that Olmert is the only one who could unite the Center-Left and unseat Netanyahu.
Last month, Olmert received a suspended prison term and was levied a fine for failing to address a conflict of interest during his long years as a cabinet minister. According to the judges, he helped award tenders and cut red tape for clients represented by his confidant at the time, Uri Messer. Nevertheless, the judges said the fact he had to resign from his post as prime minister in 2008 (a move that took effect in 2009) should spare him from prison. The lenient sentence removed a major hurdle on his potential path back to the Prime Minister's Office. Had Olmert been sent to prison, he would have most likely been barred from elected office for the next seven years because of what is known as "moral turpitude," but now Olmert can compete for a Knesset seat and, at least theoretically, serve as a prime minister even though he would be barred from holding a ministerial portfolio owing to a High Court decision from the 1990s. In that ruling, the court said that one cannot serve as minister while on trial for major offenses — as is the case with Olmert due to an ongoing trial in a separate corruption case — but left the door open on whether this includes the premiership.
Kadima MK Dalia Itzik has also voiced her support for Olmert's return. Speaking on Army Radio, the former Knesset Speaker and government minister said it is "time to check our egos and unite." "I want to see him become the prime minister of Israel," Itzik said.
But over at Likud, Olmert's impending return has prompted MK Tzipi Hotovely to ask the head of the Central Elections Committee to prevent Olmert from running and declare his conviction as carrying moral turpitude, the online news portal NRG reported Wednesday. Kadima MK Yoel Hasson defended Olmert, saying "Hotovely and her friends are in a state of hysteria." "Only the people will get to decide this," Hasson said Wednesday.
Former Likud minister and former Likud and Kadima MK Tzachi Hanegbi said Olmert qualifies under the law to become prime minister and should be allowed to run.
Moshe Mizrahi, a former police officer who has run several corruption investigations and now plans to run for a Labor Knesset seat, echoed Hotovely, saying, "only in politics can convicted criminals such as Olmert reinvent themselves and declare their candidacy again."