Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Change Ahead In Israel

Israel's Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert, is in deep political trouble. He's just faced a day of damaging testimony by an American businessman relating to an alleged corruption scandal. It seems Mr Olmert, in the days before he became Prime Minister, used to accept tens of thousands of dollars in cash on a fairly regular basis, much of it apparently spent on some of the finer things in life.

So far, so reminiscent of the financial scandal that recently ended Bertie Ahern's time as Taoiseach. But it probably won't be the trail of money that'll cause Mr Olmert's eventual downfall - it'll be the fact he just isn't that popular. Ever since the disastrous war with Hizbollah almost two years ago, he's been judged by the Israeli people as someone who fails the basic test of an Israeli leader - is he strong enough to keep the country secure? With rockets from Hamas strongholds in the Gaza Strip still peppering Israeli territory, for most Israelis the answer to that question is no. Whatever happens with his financial irregularities, Mr Olmert surely won't be Prime Minister after the next election.

The scandal could bring that election forward though, and a familiar figure is poised to benefit. Former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has led his right-wing Likud party from political humiliation just two years ago to being a strong opposition. His reputation as a political tough guy means he's likely to become Prime Minister after Israelis next go to the polls, as they seek a strongman to protect them from the various threats they face.

Those hoping for progress towards a peaceful solution to the Israel/Palestine crisis might be aghast at the thought of a Prime Minister Netanyahu, but there would be cause to be optimistic with such a man at the helm of Israel. If anyone's going to get the Israeli people to go along with the idea of doing the necessary evils such as talking to Hamas, it's going to be someone like him - someone they believe can look after their interests. An increasingly weak leader like Prime Minister Olmert just doesn't have the authority to do that. Until he's gone, there won't be any progress at all.

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