Olmert's rivals jostle for Israel's leadership
Friday, 01 August 2008

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's rivals jostled for Israel's leadership on Thursday after his decision to resign but aides said he could remain in office long enough to forge a statehood deal with the Palestinians.

Dogged by corruption scandals, Olmert thrust Israeli politics into turmoil on Wednesday by announcing that he would step down after a Sept. 17 vote within his centrist Kadima party to choose a new leader.

But it could take his successor months to cobble together a new coalition, leaving Olmert in the role of caretaker prime minister, possibly until next year if new elections, favoured by right-wing opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu, are called.

An official close to Olmert, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Olmert intended to try to reach agreement with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas "during the time he has left", either in his current role or as caretaker leader.

Analysts nonetheless doubt Olmert will have the political strength to make commitments, either in final-status talks with Abbas or Israel's Turkish-moderated negotiations with Syria.

LIVNI, MOFAZ

Four Kadima ministers, including Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Transport Minister Shaul Mofaz, have launched campaigns to replace Olmert in the Sept. 17 vote.

Polls have shown Livni, Israel's chief negotiator with the Palestinians, ahead within Kadima.

But Netanyahu's Likud party could try to thwart Kadima's plans to form the next Israeli government by mustering a majority in parliament, either to form its own coalition or to move up elections scheduled for 2010.

Opinion polls suggest Netanyahu, a leading critic of Olmert's peace moves with the Palestinians and Syria, would win an early parliamentary election.

"This government has reached an end and it doesn't matter who heads Kadima. They are all partners in this government's total failure," Netanyahu told Israel Radio.

"National responsibility requires a return to the people and new elections."

Olmert has faced weeks of public pressure to resign over probes into suspicions he took bribes from an American businessman and made duplicate claims for travel expenses.

Police said the prime minister, who has denied any wrongdoing, would be questioned for the fourth time on Friday.
One day after Olmert announced he would step down, Israel's largest daily newspapers featured front-page photos of the prime minister's back after his announcement. The banner headline in the biggest-selling Yedioth Ahronoth read: "The Right Step".

Rival Maariv declared: "Olmert's Era, the End".

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