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Palestinians worried by Olmert’s legal woes

The Palestinian Authority is worried that the criminal investigation of Ehud Olmert could hurt peace talks with Israel.

Wednesday’s daily Ma’ariv quoted senior aides to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas as saying they fear his negotiations with Olmert could suffer a blow if the Israeli prime minister is forced by his recent legal woes to step down.

“We have reached a stage in which there is some hope and a positive atmosphere, but what is happening now puts it all in doubt,” one Ramallah official told the newspaper.

An Olmert ouster would trigger almost immediate elections that, polls show, right-wing former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu likely would win. That could significantly alter Israel’s approach to Abbas and his Hamas rivals who rule the Gaza Strip.

“In such a situation, there is no question that the negotiations will be postponed,” another Palestinian Authority official said. “We only hope that, if Olmert falls, the next prime minister will honor all the commitments made so far.”

Olmert has given no indication that the new police probe into his affairs, launched last week, might prompt him to change political course.

But his aides have had to fend off accusations by Israeli rightists that the prime minister is liable to be overly accommodating in his overtures toward the Palestinians, and possibly Syria as well, in hope of clinching a diplomatic deal that might distract the public from the criminal investigation.

In addition to resigning, Olmert has the option of taking a leave of absence while the probe runs its course. In that case, his powers would be assumed by Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni – Israel’s chief negotiator with the Palestinians.

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