(JTA) – Ehud Olmert’s announcement that he will not seek re-election plunged Israel into deep political uncertainty at a time when the country faces several crucial diplomatic and strategic challenges.
Confronted with multiple corruption probes and a climate of intense political hostility – including from leading members of his own Kadima Party – the Israeli prime minister held a hastily assembled news conference Wednesday evening to announce he will resign.
The change will take effect once Kadima chooses a new leader in primary elections scheduled for mid-September. Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz are the leading contenders.
“Things got out of all reasonable proportion,” Olmert said in his speech, referring to what he called “ceaseless attacks” against him. “The prime minister is not above the law, but he is not by any means under it.”
Maintaining his innocence, Olmert said he would step aside for the public good.
“The time has come for me to take a decision,” Olmert said. “What’s more important than what – my own personal justice or the public good?”
In the short term, Olmert’s announcement means he will stay in office until Kadima’s next leader – who will be chosen in a Sept. 17 primary or a runoff a week later – can assemble a coalition government. Failure to muster a majority of at least 61 Knesset members in the coalition would trigger new general elections, likely in early 2009. Otherwise, the next scheduled elections are in 2010.
Aside from casting a cloud of uncertainty over political succession, the development raised questions about how Olmert’s major diplomatic initiatives will fare during this period of political transition and beyond it – including peace tracks with the Palestinians and with Syria, and the effort to halt Iran’s suspected nuclear weapons program.
A day after Olmert’s announcement, Reuters reported that an Israeli official close to Olmert said the prime minister intends to push ahead with talks with the Palestinians during his remaining time in office.
Livni, the Olmert administration’s chief negotiator with the Palestinian Authority, is the leading Kadima candidate to succeed Olmert, polls show. She was meeting in Washington with U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice when Olmert made his announcement Wednesday.
The other top contender in Kadima, Mofaz, also was in the United States at the time of the announcement. Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who leads the Labor Party, was on a plane heading home from meetings in Washington.
Israeli pundits speculated that the absence of Livni and Barak, two of Olmert’s main political adversaries, from the country was a factor in the timing of the prime minister’s announcement.
Barak could trigger new general elections by pulling Labor out of the governing coalition, but he trails Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu in polls showing that Netanyahu would win handily if a general election were held today.
On Thursday, Netanyahu called for immediate general elections, telling Israel Radio that ”National responsibility requires a return to the people and new elections.”
By leaving the political stage this way, Olmert ensures that his Kadima successor can run for the next general election in 2010 as the incumbent prime minister, possibly providing a boost to that candidate.
Though Olmert pledged in his speech to continue pursuing peace talks with Israel’s Arab neighbors, the prime minister’s lame-duck status makes any significant breakthroughs highly unlikely.
Rather, Olmert likely will end his abbreviated term with many of his major policy goals unrealized.
He fought a war in Lebanon in 2006 to recover two soldiers taken captive on Israel’s northern border and neutralize the threat to Israel from Hezbollah, but the war failed to recover the soldiers or deliver a mortal blow to the Shiite terrorist group in Lebanon.
He launched indirect peace talks with Syria through Turkish mediation, but the corruption scandals that aborted his term did not leave him enough time to reach any deals with Damascus.
Iran’s suspected march toward nuclear weapons has been Israel’s central foreign preoccupation during Olmert’s term, but the prime minister has not managed to rally sufficient international pressure on the Islamic Republic to bring its uranium enrichment activities to a halt.
At re-launched peace talks with the Palestinians last November, Olmert pledged to achieve a peace deal with the Palestinians by the end of 2008, but he recently acknowledged that that timetable was not feasible. Meanwhile, under Olmert’s watch the Gaza Strip fell under the control of Hamas, the Islamic terrorist group, which waged a low-level war with Israel until a truce in June.
Given the corruption scandals that plagued his two-and-a-half years in office, even Olmert’s policy initiatives – including the decision to re-launch the indirect peace talks with Syria and sign a cease-fire deal with Hamas in Gaza – were viewed with suspicion by some who derided the moves as ploys to ensure his political survival.
Olmert had been under a cloud of investigations almost since the first day he assumed his post, when a coma disabled then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in January 2006.
The major scandal that erupted in May, in which American Jewish businessman Morris Talansky said he gave Olmert $150,000 in cash over the course of the decade and a half before Olmert became prime minister, crippled Olmert’s ability to govern.
The revelation by police investigators several weeks later that Olmert was suspected of double-billing overseas trips to various Jewish charities accelerated the calls for his resignation.
A growing chorus of Israeli pundits, Knesset members and intellectuals had called on Olmert to step aside, if only to allow the government to focus on the urgent threat of a nuclear Iran.
All the while, Olmert has denied any wrongdoing. On Wednesday, he said he would prove his innocence from beyond the Prime Minister’s Office.