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Israeli Politics, Mideast Peace Efforts in Turmoil with Olmert Resignation Pledge


Israeli politics and Mideast peace efforts have been thrown into turmoil following Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's pledge to step down in September. VOA's Jim Teeple reports Ehud Olmert will leave office tarnished by corruption and many Israelis say his premiership has been a failure.

Israeli politicians are not wasting time when it comes to jockeying over who will succeed Ehud Olmert. Opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu who heads the right-wing Likud Party says new elections should be called immediately.

Most polls show the Likud Party winning a new national election but for now Ehud Olmert's centrist Kadima Party will remain in power - at least until a new Kadima Party leader is chosen at a party convention on September 17. Reuvan Hazen, a professor of Political Science at Jerusalem's Hebrew University, says the party convention will likely decide Kadima's future.

"The Kadima Party has only one thing that keeps it together right now and that is not an ideology or a leader but its hold on power. If it does not stay together and form a new government, immediately after electing a new leader it will lose the next elections," said Hazen.

Kadima party leadership change

The two leading candidates to lead the party and succeed Mr. Olmert are Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Transport Minister Shaul Mofaz. Polls say Livni is the most popular politician in Israel, and has a slight lead over Mofaz inside Kadima. However Tamir Sheaffer who also teaches politics at Hebrew University says Mofaz might be the more electable candidate, because Livni is not popular with conservatives like the religious Shas Party, which holds the balance of power in the governing coalition.

"The ultra-religious Shas Party will have more problems going with a coalition with Tzipi Livni than to go with Mofaz - they clearly prefer Shaul Mofaz. Therefore it is possible that Shaul Mofaz will have more chances to form a coalition," said Sheaffer.

Most analysts say any new coalition - if one can be formed - will have a short political life and new elections are likely by early next year.

The peace process

Ehud Olmert announced he was stepping down just as Israeli and Palestinians mediators were starting a meeting in Washington - continuing a series of talks aimed at reaching a comprehensive peace agreement between the two sides by the end of this year.

U.S. and Palestinian participants said following the meeting they were confident the process begun last year at the Annapolis Mideast Peace Conference will continue. However Reuvan Hazen of Hebrew University says that is not likely - not only because of the new political reality in Israel - but because most Israeli leaders do not have any confidence in the leadership of moderate Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

"Well it is quite unlikely, not only because of what is going on inside Israel, but also because of the lack of real progress in these talks and the inability of Abu Mazen (Mahmoud Abbas) to produce anything viable, nor to bring Gaza and the West Bank together," said Hazen.

Conflict resolution

Hazen says one area of Mideast diplomacy that might get a boost from Ehud Olmert leaving office could be ongoing Israeli talks with Syria. A new Kadima leader he says could put the issue of peace with Syria before Israel's electorate next year - potentially resolving the decades-long conflict. According to Reuvan Hazen that is something Ehud Olmert could never do because he says most Israelis no longer have any confidence in his leadership.

"His entire tenure was erased within 60 days of taking office when the war in Lebanon began," he said. "His personal financial scandals; the reports that showed he was a failure as prime minister; the inability of the Kadima Party to succeed; all of this coming after a very successful and popular prime minister in the form of Ariel Sharon. Ehud Olmert a few weeks after he leaves office will probably be forgotten quickly."

While his political obituary is all but written Ehud Olmert is still Israel's prime minister for the next two months. In that capacity he says he will still work for peace with the Palestinians even though it is doubtful given his current lame-duck status he would be able to negotiate substantive concessions that would be required for any peace agreement to succeed.

Mr. Olmert also says he will continue to fight allegations that he misused thousands of dollars of political contributions he received several years ago from a U.S. citizen involved in political fund raising. He will get his chance soon; Israeli police say they will shortly question the prime minister for the fourth time about the allegations that have put an end to his political career and could send him to jail once he steps down as prime minister.