US Playing Favorites in Israeli Politics, Israeli Lawmaker Says

By Julie Stahl | July 7, 2008 | 8:17 PM EDT

Jerusalem ( - The United States is giving an unfair advantage to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's Kadima party in upcoming elections by paying attention to Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, one Israeli lawmaker is saying.

Olmert, who ranked very low in the Likud party list in the last elections, became Sharon's right-hand man during the last few years. After joining Sharon in the Kadima party, Olmert was named acting prime minister following Sharon's incapacitating stroke.

Now in the limelight, Olmert has a good chance of becoming Israel's next prime minister in the March elections, analysts are saying. Media reports have suggested that Olmert could be invited to Washington next month, ahead of the elections.

The U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv could not confirm the report that Olmert had been or would be invited to Washington.

But the attention Olmert is getting has irked at least one lawmaker, who said the U.S. is playing favorites.

The problem is that it looks like there is a "direct intervention" in the Israeli political scene, said Labor Party Knesset member Yitzhak Herzog. (According to opinion polls, the Labor party is running a distant second to Kadima.)

"The problem is of course that it is deemed as the direct support of the administration to Ehud Olmert and his party Kadima," Herzog said in a radio interview. "We are bothered by it."

Herzog said there was an "unwritten agreement" between the U.S. and Israel that they would not interfere in each other's political campaigns or elections.

Without giving any details, he said that a "red line" had been crossed when Bush expressed support for Sharon before his stroke; and now it's been crossed again with Olmert's reported invitation to Washington.

President Bush telephoned Olmert on Thursday for the first time since he became acting prime minister and expressed his support for Sharon's family and friends and the people of Israel during this time.

During their conversation, Bush said he intends "to continue implementing his and Prime Minister Sharon's joint vision of advancing the peace process in the region," according to a statement from the prime minister's office.

Analysts have said that a trip to the White House would do wonders for Olmert's campaign. But one American official said that for precisely that reason, Bush might not invite Olmert at this time.

The U.S. would not want to be seen as taking sides in the upcoming elections, said the official. Nor would Washington want to do anything that would indicate it had pre-judged Sharon's health before doctors have made a final assessment of his condition, he said.

On the other hand, the U.S. would want to invite Olmert as the current leader of Israel, he added.

Sharon and his Kadima party would likely have garnered more than enough support in upcoming elections on March 28 to form the next government. Sharon's main focus, he said earlier, was to reach an agreement with the Palestinians.

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