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Olmert’s Trip to Washington Overshadowed by Corruption Scandal at Home

Israel’s embattled Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was in Washington earlier this week, meeting with U.S. President George Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, and attending the annual conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, or AIPAC. But his trip was overshadowed by a corruption scandal at home that is threatening to bring down his government.

Prime Minister Olmert came to Washington to discuss the peace negotiations with the Palestinians and the potential threat of Iran’s nuclear program. A U.S. military aid package that includes an advanced missile defense system and new warplanes for Israel was also said to be on his agenda. The trip comes at a time when Olmert is under fire in Israel because of allegations he received bribes from a U.S. businessman. The prime minister has rejected calls for his resignation. But journalist M. J. Rosenberg of the Israel Policy Forum says Olmert’s political future looks bleak. Speaking with host Judith Latham of VOA News Now’s International Press Club, Mr. Rosenberg says the perception among Israeli politicians and among journalists is that there is “no way that Olmert will be able to keep his job.” He notes that the Prime Minister has promised that, if indicted, he will resign. M.J. Rosenberg says Mr. Olmert’s popularity since the August 2006 war with Lebanon has been “so low it’s hard to imagine he can survive.”

But Middle East analyst and Georgetown University professor Robert Lieber, who has just returned from a conference in Israel, reminds us that the Prime Minister has exhibited extraordinary “staying power” in the past. And even though it was widely expected Mr. Olmert would resign after the war with Lebanon, he survived its political repercussions. Moreover, Mr. Lieber says, one should remember than an investigation of the man does not mean he is guilty.

So, what would happen if Prime Minister Olmert is forced to leave office? M. J. Rosenberg says that, presuming his Kadima Party can hold onto power and avoid early elections, it will choose a successor. Mr. Rosenberg suggests one likely successor would be Tsipi Livni, the Foreign Minister. And if that happens, he adds, she might be able to “continue on the Palestinian track.” Furthermore, he says Livni is a woman with an untarnished reputation, known for being “honest and forthright.” Still, Mr. Rosenberg suggests that she would be tested immediately by the powerful Israeli “settler lobby” by putting up some unauthorized settlements. He says it will be hard for any Israeli prime minister to “crack down on the extremists.”

Other possibilities for the top job, according to Robert Lieber, are Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz or another leading cabinet minister from Kadima. But he says their political differences would be “more ones of style and emphasis.” However, if new elections take place, Mr. Lieber says, there might be a coalition government headed by former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his Likud Party. He suggests that the coalition would be more likely to include Ehud Barak, the head of the Labor Party and himself a former Prime Minister, than members of Kadima. Mr. Lieber says in Israel where there are very complex shifting coalitions of multiple parties, it is “not always easy to predict what the alignment would be if new elections were held.”

The chief U.S. correspondent for Al-Arabiya television and MBC News, Nadia Bilbassy, says that from an Arab world perspective, any change in Israeli politics “will not be good news for the peace process.” She describes the problem as a “race against time.” Bilbassy says it is hard to be optimistic about the prospects for a peace agreement considering the combination of a new Israeli prime minister, a new U.S. president coming into office early next year, and a weak Palestinian president. Robert Lieber and M.J. Rosenberg agree that any significant movement in the peace process is probably a long way off.