Israel faces power vacuum
Israel entered a months-long season of political uncertainty Wednesday as Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s decision to resign in September cast the country into a leadership struggle that could complicate efforts to make peace with its neighbors.
Weakened by corruption scandals, Olmert announced that he would not run in his centrist Kadima party’s Sept. 17 leadership primary and would step down afterward to give the new party chairman a chance to form a different government.
That means Israel, which has been negotiating with two Palestinian factions and Syria while grappling with how to confront Iran’s nuclear ambitions, will be without effective leadership at least until October.
The power vacuum could even last into February, overlapping the change of U.S. presidential administrations, if a new Israeli government cannot be formed without general elections.
Olmert’s decision was not unexpected. A shrewd, affable political survivor who once called himself “indestructible,” the 62-year-old leader had battled longer than expected to cling to his job, even as he worked to engage some of Israel’s adversaries in peace talks.
Those peace initiatives are likely to be fiercely debated in the race to succeed him.
The leading candidates to head his party are Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, Israel’s chief negotiator with the Palestinian Authority, and Shaul Mofaz, a more hawkish former defense minister.
Former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of the opposition Likud party, who leads in polls as the most popular candidate for prime minister, has voiced strong reservations about the peace initiatives.
At stake are the U.S.-backed negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority over terms for a future Palestinian state. Israel is also talking indirectly with the more militant Palestinian group Hamas about a prisoner exchange and with Syria, through Turkish mediators, about a peace treaty.
Israel’s succession struggle also comes amid sensitive discussions among its military and civilian leaders over how to confront what they believe is Iran’s rush to develop a nuclear weapon. Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, a former prime minister, told U.S. officials in Washington this week that Israel would not rule out military action against Iran in the coming months.
Olmert will serve as a caretaker prime minister until his successor is chosen. He is likely to lean more heavily on his defense minister and Israel’s military leaders in decisions about Iran, Israeli analysts said.
The prime minister said Wednesday that he would not ease up on peace efforts with Syria and the Palestinians “as long as I remain in office.”
Uncertainty over Israel’s political direction, however, could make it difficult for him to close deals that have eluded Israeli leaders for decades or win their approval by parliament.
American and Palestinian officials insisted that Olmert’s departure would not slow the U.S.-backed peace talks. The latest round, held Wednesday in Washington, brought together Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Livni and chief Palestinian negotiator Ahmed Korei.
“The Israelis will work out their own politics,” State Department spokesman Sean McCormack told reporters. “We’re going to look forward to working with all responsible Israeli leaders in the government, whether it’s this government or some future government.”
But few Israelis or Palestinians ever put much hope in the U.S.-sponsored negotiations, which have produced little visible progress since they began in November at Annapolis, Md. Serious differences remain over borders of a Palestinian state and the future of Palestinian refugees. And Olmert said this week that there was no chance of achieving accord this year on rival claims to Jerusalem.
Aaron David Miller, a former U.S. negotiator in the Middle East, said Olmert’s departure would reduce the prospects of a high-risk initiative to close the gap between the two sides.
“No one believes that with this added uncertainty the chance of a real negotiation leading to binding agreements is possible,” he said.
The Israeli leader’s motives in pursuing negotiations have been viewed with growing suspicion as corruption allegations mounted against him and his popularity rating crashed into the single digits.
Many Israelis and Arabs believed Olmert’s overtures “were meant to give an impression that he deserves to stay in office so he can make peace,” said Ghassan Khatib, a former Palestinian Authority Cabinet official.
Olmert was in political trouble almost from the start of his tenure, pursued by police investigators looking into earlier corruption cases and damaged by an inconclusive 34-day war against Lebanon’s Hezbollah guerrillas two summers ago that many Israelis considered a defeat.
He took over in January 2006 after Prime Minister Ariel Sharon suffered a debilitating stroke, and was elected to a four-year term two months later. Olmert had served in public office since 1973, as a member of parliament, mayor of Jerusalem, and trade minister in Sharon’s government.
Police are investigating several cases in which Olmert allegedly used the mayor’s job and his Cabinet position for personal gain or to benefit cronies.
He has not been indicted. But pressure on him to resign has mounted since May, when police opened a bribery investigation alleging that Olmert took hundreds of thousands of dollars, much of it in cash, from Long Island businessman Morris Talansky.
Talansky’s later testimony detailing about $150,000 in cash payments proved to be a turning point. Olmert’s rivals in his own party turned against him and called a leadership primary. The date of the contest was agreed upon this week.
As his reputation skidded away, he got into spats with Livni and Barak, his top lieutenants, who urged him publicly to step down. In parliament, Olmert “looked on with a miserable face as his ministers voted against him, his coalition crumbled and the government became powerless,” said Zevulun Orlev, a lawmaker with the opposition National Religious Party.
In an evening TV address, the prime minister said he was stepping down to mount a full-time legal battle that he said would prove his innocence.
He lashed out at his accusers, who had leaked details of the investigations by the police, the attorney general and the state prosecutor.
“I was forced to defend myself against relentless attacks from self-appointed ‘fighters for justice’ who sought to depose me from my position, when the ends sanctified all the means,” he said, appearing angry while reading from a prepared text.
His announcement set in motion a process for choosing his successor.
If the Kadima party leader chosen in September can form a multiparty coalition with a majority of the existing 120-member parliament, Israel could have a new government in October or early November.
If not, parliament would be dissolved and general elections called 90 days later, a process that would postpone the formation of a new government until February.
Four candidates already have begun campaigning for Olmert’s job as party leader. Mofaz, the current transport minister, has been touting his army experience, especially his role as a commander in putting down a violent Palestinian uprising early in this decade.
Livni, a former intelligence agent and now the most powerful woman in Israel, noted in a radio interview this week that she serves in Olmert’s “security Cabinet,” a close circle of advisors. “Security is much more than commanding an army,” she said.
Abraham Diskin, a political scientist at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, said the difference between Mofaz and the more dovish Livni could determine the shape of the next government.
He said Livni was more likely to hold together the current coalition of Kadima, Barak’s left-leaning Labor Party and the ultra-Orthodox Shas party. Mofaz, Diskin said, would be more likely to try to bring Netanyahu’s hawkish Likud into a coalition with Kadima and leave Labor out.
Israeli political analysts say the chances of Barak or Netanyahu getting the job appear to depend on general elections.
Times staff writer Paul Richter in Washington and special correspondent Maher Abukhater in Ramallah, West Bank, contributed to this report.
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The next leader?
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s decision to quit after his centrist Kadima party chooses a new leader in September could trigger early national elections. These are some of his possible successors:
Foreign minister and chief negotiator with the Palestinians. Livni is seen as the likeliest successor from within the party. The most powerful woman in Israel since Prime Minister Golda Meir in the 1970s, Livni, 50, called on Olmert to quit last year after a scathing report on Israel’s 2006 war in Lebanon. He didn’t. Nor did she. Daughter of a prominent right-wing Zionist, she is a former intelligence agent. Like Olmert and former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, she left the right-wing Likud Party in 2005 to found Kadima.
Defense minister and leader of the Labor Party, Kadima’s main coalition ally. Barak is not a member of parliament, so he cannot become prime minister without first winning a seat. A much-decorated commando, top general and former prime minister (1999 to 2001), Barak, 66, has called for Kadima to choose a new leader. When he campaigned last year for the Labor leadership, he said Olmert should quit if an inquiry faulted him over the Lebanon war. This year, it did. But Barak said he would call for Olmert to go “at a more convenient time.”
Prime minister from 1996 to 1999 and leader of the opposition Likud Party since Sharon, Olmert and others bolted to form Kadima. Educated in the United States, he became a decorated commando. As finance minister under Sharon, Netanyahu, 58, pursued economic reforms that angered the left but are credited by many for spurring growth. Tops many polls as likely winner if parliamentary elections, not due until 2010, are called early.
Transport minister and a former army chief and defense minister. Mofaz, 60, is known for his tough tactics in crushing a Palestinian uprising that erupted after peace talks failed in 2000. The Iranian-born military man has launched his own campaign for the Kadima party leadership.