Outrage in Knesset as Olmert avoids early poll

A last-minute deal between Kadima and Labour in the early hours of Wednesday staved off — for now — the threat of early elections in Israel, but may have hastened the political demise of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who committed his party to leadership primaries in three months.

The Knesset was to vote on a motion by Likud MK Silvan Shalom for bringing the elections forward two years to this November. Kadima’s two main coalition partners, Labour and Shas, announced at the beginning of the week that they were planning to support the motion.

Labour’s promise came as a result of the warning by its leader, Ehud Barak, that he would not sit in the same government as Mr Olmert following the allegations of bribe-taking. The Shas decision followed the Treasury’s refusal to restore children’s benefits to the level they were in 2002.


Clinging on: Ehud Olmert in the Knesset on Wednesday

Ever since Mr Barak’s ultimatum to the Prime Minister four weeks ago, Kadima has been dithering over its plans, with Mr Olmert trying to resist calls for his replacement. He threatened to fire the Labour ministers if the party voted for early elections, but Mr Barak called his bluff, announcing that the party would support the motion. But most Labour members are opposed to embarking on an election campaign now, with the polls predicting a landslide for the right.

Representatives of both parties met over the last few days, and 10 hours before the scheduled vote, announced that Kadima had agreed to hold primaries by September 25, leading Labour to vote against the motion. Without an assured majority, Mr Shalom withdrew his motion and the Knesset was in uproar, with opposition members saying that Mr Barak simply wanted to hold on to his job as Defence Minister. Likud faction leader, MK Gideon Sa’ar, attacked Labour’s MKs on the podium, calling them “dish rags”, which he refused to retract even when ordered to do so by Knesset Speaker Dalia Itzik.

This is not the only talking going on behind the scenes between Kadima and Labour. A source in Kadima told the JC that Mr Barak has been trying to reach a power-sharing deal with Kadima’s Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, if and when she replaces Mr Olmert. But the plan may be premature. In his podium speech, Mr Olmert hinted that he may not be leaving early and may run in the Kadima primaries.

    Last updated: 7:28pm, June 27 2008