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Olmert’s Resignation Stirs Political Uncertainty in Israel

BY Admin  July 31, 2008 at 4:15 PM EST

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert

Olmert announced Wednesday he would leave office after his Kadima Party picks a new leader in September, a decision that comes after months of political pressure on the Israeli leader to step aside over a cloud of corruption charges.

But even with a new leader, it could take months for a new ruling coalition to engage in the Palestinian peace process — and the primary election winner may not automatically replace Olmert as head of the government, potentially leaving the embattled leader in the role of caretaker prime minister, possibly into the next year.

Right-wing opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu of the Likud Party called Thursday for parliamentary elections, which could lead to the formation of a new government that may not favor the negotiations track Olmert has been pursuing.

Netanyahu, a former premier known for his tough stance on how peace talks should be conducted, leads in Israeli opinion polls, including in head-to-head election matches with Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Defense Minister Ehud Barak, the Labor Party leader, the Associated Press reports.

After Olmert resigns, the Israeli president, Shimon Peres, will consult the parties and pick a member of parliament to form a new government — most likely the new head of the Kadima party.

But Kadima holds only 29 seats in the fractured 120-member Israeli parliament, forcing it to find allies for a coalition government, a process that could take time, according to the AP.

An Israeli official who is close to Olmert, speaking on the condition of anonymity to the AP, said the prime minister would try to reach an agreement with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas “during the time he has left,” either in his current role or in his upcoming one as caretaker leader.

Abbas now faces the task of trying to broker a peace deal with a lame-duck prime minister who is dogged by corruption scandals and whose agreements may or may not be upheld by the next Israeli leader.

“With or without Olmert, the negotiations have become futile,” Hani al-Masri, a Palestinian political analyst, told the AP.

But speaking from Tunisia, Abbas pledged to work with Olmert and his successor despite the “turmoil” in Israel.

Olmert’s has faced weeks of public and political pressure to resign after police began to probe into allegations that he took bribes from a Jewish-American businessman and had made duplicate claims for travel expenses.

A day after Olmert’s announcement, Israel’s largest-circulation newspaper, Yedioth Ahronoth, featured a front-page photo of the prime minister walking away from the cameras beneath the headline: “The Right Step.”

Having already faced questioning by the police three times over the allegations, Olmert will be questioned again Friday.