Olmert is in fight of his life

Times Staff Writer

Ehud Olmert, the fiercely competitive distance runner who governs Israel, leaned back in his tall leather chair and pondered a question about his race against time.

The prime minister is having a trying month. Prosecutors spoiled the mood at Israel's 60th anniversary festivities by disclosing that he was under investigation again, this time on suspicion of taking envelopes stuffed with cash bribes.

Then a rocket from the Gaza Strip slammed into a shopping mall in southern Israel, wounding 16 and drawing an angry crowd that shouted, "Olmert resign!" Rivals, including his foreign minister and defense minister, began maneuvering for possible early elections.

Israel's leader is fighting for his political life, with the country's first serious peace effort in years hanging in the balance. In a drama that will unfold over the coming months, he has intensified the search for an interim accord with the Palestinians while resisting a criminal indictment that would topple his government.

Broadening his peace agenda, Olmert announced Wednesday that Israel had opened indirect talks with Syria, mediated by Turkey, with the goal of ending the two neighbors' longtime enmity. But critics suggest that his diplomacy is meant mainly to divert attention from his legal problems.

Olmert, who proclaims his innocence in the criminal case, said in an interview Tuesday that he did not know how quickly the probe would conclude or whether Atty. Gen. Menachem Mazuz would indict him.

But he gave other reasons to hurry the U.S.-backed peace talks with the Palestinians.

"The race we have, the race with time, is of a different nature," Olmert said. "It doesn't have to do with the attorney general or these charges. . . . If we miss the opportunity while President Bush is still in power, then how long will it take before we can restart with a new American administration?"

Time is short for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas as well, he said. Without the promise of an accord, he cautioned, his counterpart in the peace talks might lose control of the West Bank to Hamas, the Islamic movement that runs Gaza and refuses to recognize Israel.

"It is essential that we finalize [an agreement] while all of the players are still there," Olmert said. "We are squeezed into a very narrow time framework."

Israelis have seldom been kind to their prime ministers. Olmert has fared worse than most.

Detractors portray him as a symbol of corrupt and incompetent leadership. Elected to a four-year term after stepping in for Ariel Sharon when Sharon suffered a stroke in January 2006, he has struggled to hold together a shrinking, fractious governing coalition.

His approval ratings sank into single digits after Israel's demoralizing standoff against Hezbollah in Lebanon two summers ago. He has weathered criticism for what an official inquiry panel called his ill-advised rush into that war and several other investigations of suspected abuse of his previous government posts to change rules or influence decisions to benefit business and party associates.

On top of all that, doctors have told the 62-year-old prime minister that he has early-stage prostate cancer. They say it can be cured as soon as he makes time for surgery.

As his legal troubles mount, Olmert's peace gestures strike many of his critics as little but political spin to salvage his job. His televised announcement of talks with Syria, they said, was timed to overshadow Wednesday's release of new details in the criminal probe.

"This is a prime minister with no operative plan, who lurches from day to day from a military incursion in Gaza to speculation about peace talks with Syria to maintaining dead-end negotiations with the Palestinians," said Yossi Klein Halevi, a senior fellow at Shalem Center, a Jerusalem think tank. "He leads a government that is interested in its own survival and is playing for time."

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'Shower of poisons'

Olmert portrays himself as a man of perseverance "who wakes up every morning to a shower of poisons yet uses cool judgment and composure to do his work faithfully," as he put it in a speech to members of his centrist Kadima party in March.

But some allies worry that the latest scandal might be one too many for Olmert and the country.

"How many investigations can one person stand?" Housing Minister Zeev Boim asked. "In his stomach, [he] is feeling . . . something of a crusade against him."

In the interview, Olmert looked relaxed in his windowless office, projecting a business-as-usual demeanor. He deflected questions from four foreign journalists about corruption allegations and spoke with animated conviction that a deal with the Palestinians was within reach. His mood darkened only when talk turned to rocket fire from Gaza.

Asked about the pressures on him, he sounded concerned less about adversaries at home than about external threats to Israel and the "thousands of years of Jewish aspirations and prayers" for a secure homeland that inspire and weigh on every Israeli leader.

"You get into this job," he said, "and you know you are not going to have fun, you are not going to have relaxation. You are going to have very, very tough demands and difficulties."

Olmert is an athletic, urbane lawyer and career politician who competed in half-marathons before his current job made him one of the world's most heavily guarded leaders.

To keep fit and alert these days, he makes do with treadmill workouts, he said, and unwinds by watching soccer matches and the NBA playoffs on television. (He marveled at Cleveland Cavaliers star LeBron James' 45-point effort in the team's series-ending loss Sunday to the Boston Celtics.)

An aide said Olmert was "maintaining his normal, hectic schedule" and telling his staff the corruption case "will blow over." But his workdays include meetings with his lawyers and the police, who on Friday will interrogate him for a second time about large sums he received from 1993 to 2005 from Morris Talansky, a 75-year-old Long Island financier described by one investigator as "Olmert's ATM."

The prime minister insists that the money went to legitimate campaign purposes.

Nahum Barnea, an influential columnist in the newspaper Yediot Aharonot, wrote that Olmert must decide "whether he will be devoted full time to a fight over his innocence or whether he will be a full-time prime minister."

"The choice is a difficult and cruel one," he wrote. "But it is hard to see how he will be able to continue to hold both ends of the stick."

Olmert rejected that argument, noting in the interview that his three predecessors had successfully defended themselves against allegations of illegal fundraising, a chronic problem in a country that puts strict limits on political donations.

"I will battle back against all my political enemies, and I will devote all the necessary time to deal . . . with the affairs of state," he said.

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Parameters of peace

High on that agenda is achieving what he calls an "understanding on the parameters" of peace with the Palestinian Authority. It wouldn't be the final accord on Palestinian statehood Bush envisioned when he launched the talks in November, but one Olmert believes could, if recognized by the U.N. Security Council and various world powers, create irreversible momentum toward that goal.

Pitfalls abound. Olmert wants "parameters" to guide future talks over borders, the fate of Palestinian refugees and conflicting claims to Jerusalem. Right-wing members of his diverse coalition reject any compromise on Jerusalem.

And Olmert's refusal to halt the spread of some West Bank settlements has stiffened Palestinian resistance to any deal at all. An escalation of Israeli military action in Gaza, which Olmert said he might order to stop the rockets, could sour the atmosphere for peace talks, prompting Abbas to suspend them.

But differences with Palestinian negotiators are "bridgeable," the Israeli leader said, and his urgent focus on the peace process is sincere.

"I genuinely, seriously, honestly, wholeheartedly want it to move forward," he said. "I know maybe that will cost me a lot politically. One asks oneself . . . 'What can you achieve? What can you say you did for the betterment of your people?' "

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boudreaux@latimes.com

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