Israel was bracing yesterday for weeks of political turmoil after Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s shock announcement that he would step down next month, casting a shadow over Middle East peacemaking.
Wednesday’s announcement opened the way for political jockeying within Olmert’s centrist Kadima party, which is scheduled to hold an unprecedented leadership vote on Sept. 17, and renewed calls for snap elections.
His successor may take months to cobble together a new coalition, leaving Olmert in the role of caretaker prime minister, possibly into next year.
Compounding the uncertainty, right-wing opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu called yesterday for snap elections, a move that could lead to formation of a government opposed to a peace deal.
“Everyone in this government is responsible for a string of failures. We must let the people decide through new elections,” Netanyahu told public radio.
Opinion polls indicate the Likud leader is a favorite to replace the embattled Olmert, whose time in office since early 2006 has been dogged by a string of corruption allegations and dismal popularity ratings.
Olmert’s decision also raised questions over the next steps in the hobbled peace process with the Palestinians and recently launched indirect talks with longtime foe Syria.
An Israeli official close to Olmert, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Olmert would try to reach agreement with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas “during the time he has left.”
In announcing his decision on Wednesday, Olmert insisted he was innocent of the series of graft allegations that in recent months had led to a chorus of calls for his resignation.
His surprise move marked the apex of a political storm unleashed when police launched a probe in May over suspicions he had accepted money from a US businessman to fund campaigns and a lavish lifestyle in the 13 years before he became prime minister.
“I have made mistakes and I regret it,” Olmert said in a televised address from his official residence in Jerusalem. “I will quit my duties in an honorable, just and responsible manner, as I have acted throughout my mandate.”