Olmert agrees to Kadima primaries

By Anshel Pfeffer, June 13, 2008

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert caved into pressure on Wednesday and agreed to his Kadima party preparing for leadership primaries at the soonest possible date.

Mr Olmert had tried in the preceding days to persuade his colleagues to wait, but the threats by coalition partners that they would support a Knesset motion for early elections forced his hand.

On Wednesday, Mr Olmert met MK Tzachi Hanegbi, the chairman of Kadima’s Party Affairs Committee, and the head of the party’s Knesset faction MK Eli Aflalo.

A week earlier, his agreement to meet the two was seen as an indication that he was about to agree to holding primaries, but over the weekend, he spoke to three of the potential leadership candidates, asking them to wait until the cross-examination of Morris Talansky, a key witness in the bribe-taking investigation against him, on July 17.

Under pressure: Mr Olmert at this week's cabinet meeting

The three — ministers Shaul Mofaz, Meir Sheetrit and Avi Dichter — initially acquiesced to Mr Olmert’s request but Kadima’s two main coalition partners, Labour and Shas, stepped up their threats to vote next week for an opposition motion to bring elections forward, most likely to this November. Mr Olmert’s support quietly melted away, with most of the Knesset members and ministers quietly urging speedy primaries, in the hope that this would persuade the coalition partners not to jump ship just yet.

So far, only a handful of Kadima MKs have openly called for Mr Olmert’s resignation but this week, the leadership frontrunner Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni said that Kadima “has to make decisions in the near future for the sake of its supporters and voters. The party must decide on its direction to return the public’s trust.” And one of her potential rivals, Internal Security Minister Mr Dichter, said that the party must hold primaries by September at the latest.

Labour’s leaders have made it clear over the last two weeks that an unambiguous move by Kadima to replace Mr Olmert would be a condition to their remaining in the coalition. Shas is demanding that the government cancel the cuts in children’s benefits.

Mr Olmert has not given interviews to the Israeli media since the current scandal broke, over a month ago, but his aides have made it clear that he has no plans to resign.

Last updated: 2:12pm, June 17 2008