Olmert Declares Intent to Step Down

By Linda Gradstein
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, July 31, 2008

JERUSALEM, July 30 -- Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, facing a widening corruption investigation, announced Wednesday that he will not compete in his party's leadership primary in September. The move will effectively end his tenure as premier and is likely to complicate efforts to reach an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal before President Bush leaves office.

Olmert, 62, who has been under growing pressure to resign, continued to insist he was innocent of the corruption charges. He said he was choosing the public good over justice for himself.

"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.

In a live television broadcast from the back yard of his official residence in Jerusalem, Olmert said he would step down as soon as his Kadima party chooses a new leader in the primary set for Sept. 17. Olmert's term was originally set to end in 2010.

In Washington, White House spokesman Gordon D. Johndroe said Bush spoke to Olmert just before his announcement. "He wishes him well and will continue to work closely with him while he remains prime minister," Johndroe said, adding that relations "have been exceptionally close and cooperative" during Olmert's tenure.

Palestinian officials reacted cautiously, with Foreign Minister Riyad al-Maliki saying that Olmert's decision would not change much, the Associated Press reported. "It's true that Olmert was enthusiastic about the peace process and he spoke about this process with great attention, but it has not achieved any progress or breakthrough," Maliki said.

Israel and the Palestinian Authority, whose influence is limited to the West Bank, renewed peace talks at a U.S.-sponsored conference in Annapolis, Md., in November, after a seven-year hiatus. More recently, Israel has renewed indirect peace talks with Syria, with the latest round, mediated by Turkey, concluding Thursday.

Olmert said he would continue to push for peace as long as he is in office, but it appears unlikely that Israel will make any major decisions on concessions to either Syria or the Palestinians until a new government is formed.

Some Israeli politicians welcomed Olmert's decision.

"I think the prime minister did the right thing," said Gideon Ezra, of Kadima. "His speech was open and direct, and I'm sure he is relieved now. It is time to establish an alternative leadership in the party."

The front-runner to replace Olmert is Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, who was at the State Department when Olmert made his announcement. She was about to begin a 90-minute meeting with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and former Palestinian prime minister Ahmed Qurei.

In a curt statement to reporters later, Rice called the announcement "an internal Israeli matter." She said this week's talks -- including a private meeting with Livni and sessions with the Palestinians and with Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak -- had been "very fruitful" and the parties were working "very, very hard towards an agreement."

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