After verdict, Olmert may return to politics

JERUSALEM (AP) -- Could Ehud Olmert be plotting his return to politics?

Although the former prime minister denies it, that was the buzz in Israel on Thursday, after he was acquitted of a series of corruption charges that forced him to resign three years ago.

The momentum is driven by the displeasure of many with Olmert's successor, Benjamin Netanyahu, the sense that the current opposition leaders are too weak to unseat him, and a sinking suspicion that in bringing down Olmert in the midst of critical negotiations with the Palestinians, overzealous prosecutors might just have cost Israel its chance for peace.

Speculation over whether he may return to political life has been rife since a Jerusalem court dismissed most of the counts against him on Tuesday.

In the decision, Olmert was cleared of charges he accepted cash-stuffed envelopes from an American supporter and that he double-billed Jewish organizations to cover his international travel.

Olmert was convicted of a third charge, breach of trust, for steering government contracts toward associates of a friend. But because the more serious charges were dismissed, the verdict was seen as a major victory for Olmert.

Olmert, 66, sought to play down expectations that he is eyeing a comeback, telling an academic conference Thursday that he has "no interest" in entering politics.

"I am not involved and I don't intend to be involved," he said. "I am now busy with other things."

Many were not convinced. Avraham Burg, a former parliament speaker and confidant of Olmert's, laughed off the comments, saying they were not the final word on his friend's political future.

"Well, today, of course he says he is not returning to politics, but is he political potential? The answer is yes," Burg said. "Is there a chance that in the next election he will render his candidacy? There is a fair chance."

Olmert, who was deeply unpopular when he was forced to resign, has enjoyed a comeback of sorts since this week's verdict.

Many commentators have lamented the breakdown in Mideast peace efforts under Netanyahu and wondered whether Olmert, who conducted more than year of intense negotiations with the Palestinians, might have delivered an agreement if he had not been driven from office.

Olmert has claimed that he was on the brink of a historic agreement with the Palestinians at the time of his resignation.

The Palestinians have said Olmert's assessment was overly optimistic.

Nonetheless, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas' office said this week that a "great opportunity was wasted" with Olmert's exit.

Peace talks have been at a standstill since Netanyahu took office in March 2009, in large part because he has refused to endorse the concessions that Olmert offered. Among them: a near complete pullout from the West Bank and shared administration, with international partners, over east Jerusalem. The Palestinians claim all of the West Bank and east Jerusalem, along with Gaza, all captured by Israel in the 1967 Mideast war, for a future state.

At the time, the chief Palestinian negotiator said Olmert's offer was turned down because the Palestinians refused to compromise over total control of east Jerusalem, including its sensitive Old City holy sites.

Olmert still faces sentencing for the breach of trust conviction on Sept. 5. He could face up to three years in prison, and if the crime is deemed "moral turpitude," he could also be barred from seeking office for seven years. Legal experts say that jail time or a moral turpitude label are unlikely.

Beyond that, Olmert still faces another corruption trial connected to a bribery scandal surrounding a suspect Jerusalem real estate deal. That trial is expected to drag on for at least another year.

As of now, parliamentary elections aren't scheduled until late 2013. But Netanyahu always has the option of pushing up a vote. With his government deeply divided by a Supreme Court-ordered deadline to reform the country's military draft by Aug. 1, it is possible that the coalition could fall apart in the coming weeks.

For now, Netanyahu is firmly entrenched as prime minister, and his parliamentary rivals, including opposition leader Shelly Yacimovich of the Labor Party and his new vice prime minister, Kadima Party leader Shaul Mofaz, are not seen as serious challenges.

Three years after stepping down, Olmert's shadow continues to loom over Israeli politics, where he is perhaps the only person with the stature and experience to challenge Netanyahu.

Sima Kadmon, a political commentator with the daily Yediot Ahronot, predicted that Olmert will become a candidate for prime minister as early as the next elections if he can resolve his remaining legal troubles.

"In that case, the biggest loser from Olmert's acquittal and his return to politics will be Netanyahu. The political arena will once again have an alternative," she wrote.


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