WASHINGTON — If Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is toast in a corruption scandal, so is President Bush's effort to broker a Mideast peace deal by the time he leaves office.
Time and patience were running short for U.S.-backed peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians before Olmert's simmering political troubles boiled over this week. If Olmert is forced out, there will be little time and perhaps even less appetite among all sides to start over.
Israel's powerful defense minister, Ehud Barak, who is presumed to want Olmert's job, said Wednesday the prime minister should step aside because of his political or legal distractions. Barak threatened to bring down the government if Olmert doesn't comply.
Students of previous, failed negotiations said Olmert's precarious position could let the Bush administration off the hook if the current talks go nowhere.
"If Israeli politics are in meltdown, that's certainly not the time to lock in an agreement that breaks new ground," said Jonathan Alterman, Mideast scholar at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Israeli prosecutors are looking into tens of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions that Olmert collected from American donors in the years before he became prime minister in 2006.
Pressure for Olmert to resign, or at least "go on vacation," as Barak put it, grew louder after a key witness, U.S. businessman Morris Talansky, testified this week that he had given $150,000 to Olmert. Talansky said the payments, often cash-stuffed envelopes, helped fund Olmert's expensive lifestyle, including luxury hotels and first-class travel.
Olmert has denied any wrongdoing and promised to resign if indicted.
Olmert's government was built on the premise that cutting a deal with the Palestinians is in Israel's best long-term interest. If Barak carries out his threat, new elections could bring a government opposed to those high-level negotiations as well as new, low-level talks with Syria.
Olmert's personal relationship with his Palestinian counterpart and his direct involvement in talks would be difficult to replicate quickly. Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas meet regularly, shake hands warmly and act as billboard advertising for closed-door talks that both men say are confronting the toughest issues in the six-decade Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Aaron David Miller, a former U.S. negotiator, likens the current talks to a car with three flat tires. The Palestinian Authority is still a mess, Olmert's in trouble and the U.S. doesn't seem reconciled to the kind of arduous diplomacy and hard political choices that a successful U.S.-brokered settlement would require, Miller said.
"The fourth tire is the only one with any air, and that's Abbas and Olmert. They like each other," and seem to work well together, Miller said. "But the car can't really go where it needs to go."