Olmert Steps Down As Premier Of Israel

By Samuel Sockol and Griff Witte
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, September 22, 2008

JERUSALEM, Sept. 21 -- Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert resigned Sunday, brought low by a string of corruption probes, while Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni struggled to assemble a coalition that would allow her to succeed him without facing new elections.

Olmert had promised this summer to step down as soon as a new leader for his party, Kadima, could be chosen. Livni narrowly won that vote last week, and on Sunday, Olmert submitted a letter to President Shimon Peres that formally sets in motion the process of choosing a successor. Livni has begun meeting with politicians from rival parties, trying to build a majority in the 120-member Knesset, or parliament.

Olmert's coalition had dwindled over the past year, and most analysts say Livni faces a challenge gathering the support she needs to govern. If she does not succeed within six weeks, Israel will probably have to hold general elections in early 2009. Binyamin Netanyahu, leader of the opposition Likud party, is the favorite in that race, with Livni close behind.

The fate of U.S.-backed peace talks initiated under Olmert could be at stake. Livni has been Israel's primary negotiator and has vowed to continue the discussions if she assumes power, but Netanyahu has been a staunch critic of the talks.

By submitting his resignation, Olmert becomes the caretaker prime minister until a new government can be formed.

The end of his tenure comes nearly three years after then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon suffered a debilitating stroke, thrusting his deputy, Olmert, into power. Olmert was later elected to a full term slated to end in 2010. He led Israel through an inconclusive but damaging war with the radical Lebanese movement Hezbollah in the summer of 2006. Last year, he relaunched long-dormant peace talks with the Palestinians. But despite great fanfare at the kickoff ceremony in Annapolis in October, the negotiations have appeared to gain little traction.

Olmert, the former mayor of Jerusalem, was also dogged throughout his tenure by allegations of corruption. New accusations surfaced in the spring, when New York businessman Morris Talansky told investigators he had given Olmert more than $150,000 over the years, much of it in cash-stuffed envelopes. Investigators later found evidence that Olmert had double-billed charities and government agencies for plane flights and hotel stays.

The police recommended last Sunday that Olmert be indicted on charges of bribery, breach of public trust, money laundering and fraudulent receipt of goods. Prosecutors have not said whether they plan to follow through with the case.

Even if Olmert is not indicted, political analysts say his tenure will not be remembered fondly by most Israelis, who see him as emblematic of a generation of politicians who appear to care more about personal profit than public service.

"The legacy of Olmert is corruption," said Yaron Ezrahi, a political scientist at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

On Sunday evening, Olmert personally delivered his resignation letter to Peres, who later broadcast a statement in which he praised Olmert for "the respectful way in which he is handing over his power."

Peres has to decide who will be given the chance to form a new government. It is widely assumed that Livni, as leader of the main coalition party, will get the nod, and an announcement could come as early as Monday. Livni is not waiting for the official call, having met with leaders of other parties to try to coax them into her coalition.

The coalition includes 67 of the Knesset's 120 members. It is heavily dependent on Shas, an ultra-Orthodox party whose leaders had suggested before Livni's election as head of the centrist Kadima party that they would bolt if she won the primary. Shas has opposed any negotiation with the Palestinians over the fate of Jerusalem, a core issue in the conflict. Kadima's leadership has been coy about its intentions since the primary vote.

Also wavering in its commitment to Livni is the center-left Labor Party, whose leader, Defense Minister Ehud Barak, recently met with Likud's Netanyahu. Some Labor members are thought to favor new elections, although polls show the party losing ground in any vote.

Likud, meanwhile, is hoping to derail Livni's efforts before they can gather momentum. "We are going to tell the president that Mrs. Livni does not have a mandate to lead the country," said Yuval Steinitz, a Netanyahu deputy, as he traveled to Peres's residence Sunday evening. "She was not chosen by the public. She was chosen in primaries."

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