Israel's Olmert Clears Way for Party Primaries

By Griff Witte
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, June 12, 2008

JERUSALEM, June 11 -- Under an ethics cloud and facing the possible collapse of his governing coalition, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on Wednesday cleared the way for his party to hold early primaries that could end his political career.

The move may temporarily ease dissension within his coalition. But it also could mean that Olmert's Kadima party will choose a successor later this summer, which would effectively end his premiership.

Also Wednesday, Olmert and his top security officials postponed a decision to authorize an Israeli military invasion of the Gaza Strip, choosing instead to allow Egyptian-mediated truce talks with the radical Islamist group Hamas to continue.

Olmert has been under increasing pressure to step down since reports surfaced last month that he had received more than $150,000 from an American businessman, much of it in cash. Although the money was ostensibly meant for campaign expenses, the businessman, Morris Talansky, testified that he believed Olmert had used some of the money to fund a lavish lifestyle.

Olmert told two top party leaders Wednesday that they could go ahead with preparations for a primary, though one is not due until 2010. Olmert had earlier opposed the idea of an early primary.

"No date has been set for primaries, but the process of discussion has begun," said Olmert's spokesman, Mark Regev. He said Olmert had not decided whether he will compete.

Talansky is expected to take the stand again next month to be cross-examined by Olmert's attorneys, and the prime minister's aides are hoping that a second round of questioning will mitigate the political damage. Olmert has denied any wrongdoing in the case but has said he will resign if indicted.

Late last month, the leader of Olmert's coalition partner, Defense Minister Ehud Barak, threatened to pull his support unless Kadima picked a new party head. Barak's Labor Party had also expressed initial support for a move to dissolve parliament that is expected to come up for a vote next week. By allowing the primary process to start, Olmert may have kept Labor in line for now.

Israel's political crisis comes as the government faces tough choices over how to handle daily rocket fire from the Gaza Strip, as well as apparently fruitless U.S.-backed negotiations with the Palestinian Authority over a possible peace deal.

On Wednesday, Israel's security cabinet, a select group of ministers, announced it would continue to work with Egypt toward a cease-fire with Hamas but would also instruct the military to prepare for major operations if the talks break down.

"We are giving the Egyptian initiative every chance to succeed," Regev said.

"The current situation is unsustainable and intolerable," he added. "It has to end one way or another."

A Hamas spokesman in Gaza, Fawzi Barhoum, dismissed Israel's announcement and said the truce talks are being used as a way "to justify an attack on the Palestinian people."

Hamas and its allies have launched daily rocket attacks since the group seized control of the Gaza Strip a year ago. Hamas is officially pledged to Israel's destruction but has indicated a willingness to accept a long-term cease-fire agreement along the 1967 borders.

Israel, which pulled Jewish settlers and its military out of Gaza in 2005, launches frequent raids in the coastal territory. On Wednesday, four Palestinians were killed in Israeli attacks, including a 9-year-old girl who was hit by a tank shell as she stood in her backyard, according to Gazan medical officials. At least one of the others killed was also a civilian.

The Israeli military said it was targeting fighters who were launching rockets into southern Israel.

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is due to arrive in the region this weekend to try to accelerate negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, which holds sway in the West Bank.

Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad on Wednesday said that the Bush administration goal of a deal by the end of 2008 is unrealistic. "I have a strong feeling that is tantamount to certainty that a solution won't be achieved this year," he said.

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