But while Olmert's political skill sets him apart from other opposition leaders, it does not provide him a path to victory on its own. There are significant political obstacles in splitting Netanyahu's allies from him: Der'i, for his part, shares his party's leadership with the ultra-hawkish Eli Yishai, and the final say in Shas belongs to Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the 92-year old patron of the party. Shas's electorate, moreover, is firmly right-wing and clearly prefers Netanyahu to any centrist candidate. Nor would Lieberman opt for a centrist government if given the choice, as he proved by forming a pre-election alliance with Netanyahu. For both Shas and Lieberman, a centrist coalition would be palatable only if a right-wing coalition is numerically impossible. In other words, to win the post-election coalition building, Olmert would have to beat Netanyahu in the ballot box.
The third and final argument in favor of Olmert running was that he could potentially steal the votes of moderate right-wing voters. There's some logic to the idea: Given Netanyahu's shift to the right through his electoral alliance with Lieberman and the very right-wing list produced this week in the primaries of his Likud party, there appears to be room in the center for a serious challenge. If enough moderate right-wing voters find the Likud's right-wing shift too distasteful, they may prefer a moderate like Olmert.
Indeed, if Olmert could attract enough right-wing voters to the center, bringing Netanyahu's bloc below 60 (of 120) Knesset members, all bets would be off on the coalition building process. Polling, however, has not been kind to this theory: The right-wing bloc has appeared poised to win around 65 seats throughout the campaign, and the result was not much changed when surveys asked about a hypothetical Olmert run. Nevertheless, an Olmert-led centrist coalition remains the only plausible path to a Netanyahu defeat.
And even if Olmert were to announce his intention to run, his legal troubles may still come back to haunt him. The State Prosecutor's office has announced that it will appeal his partial acquittal. A court decision on a separate corruption case against him is still pending, and legal challenge would likely be mounted against his appointment as prime minister even if he were to win the elections. Many voters on the center-left, moreover, will find Olmert's legal troubles unsavory (even in his partial acquittal, the judges' language in describing Olmert's actions was harsh). Yacimovich has already attacked Olmert on this front, saying that anyone who backs his political return "supports the destruction of the [political] system."
Netanyahu, in other words, remains the heavy favorite to form the next Israeli government regardless of the jockeying in the center. And yet, despite these obstacles, Olmert has been eager to return to the political game. He knows well the cardinal rule of Israeli politics articulated by Ariel Sharon -- himself, once a disgraced minister of defense who climbed his way back to the top of Israel's leadership. Israeli politics, Sharon noted, are like a Ferris Wheel: Sometimes you find yourself on top and sometime below, but the trick is to stay on the wheel. Olmert himself, one should remember, first ascended to the prime minister's office in unlikely circumstances, after it was thrust upon him following Sharon's debilitating stroke.
Should Olmert decide to re-enter the political game, we will be in for a contentious, perhaps dramatic campaign. Those in Washington hoping for a Netanyahu defeat, however, are likely to be disappointed.