JERUSALEM — Israel's foreign minister on Thursday joined the growing ranks of senior politicians who have turned away from Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, as expectations built that there will soon be fresh elections.
Tzipi Livni, a possible successor to Olmert and a fellow member of his centrist Kadima Party, stopped short of calling for his resignation. But she did say the party needs to prepare for a new vote and indicated it should first pick a new leader.
"I think the reality has changed since yesterday, and Kadima has to make decisions," Livni said in Jerusalem. "I suspect that Kadima needs to start right away acting for every eventuality, including elections."
Unlike other top Kadima leaders who have voiced support for Olmert as he attempts to fend off corruption allegations, Livni pointedly refused. Instead, she said that it was necessary to "restore the trust in Kadima," and that the allegations against Olmert were a matter not just of legality, but of "values and norms."
Olmert, whose term is not up until 2010, has been besieged in recent days by calls for his resignation. The most prominent such demand came Wednesday, when Defense Minister Ehud Barak threatened to force early elections unless Olmert steps aside. Barak's Labor Party is Kadima's largest partner in the fragile coalition government.
Olmert did not comment publicly on Livni's remarks Thursday and has not spoken openly about the scandal since American businessman Morris Talansky testified on Tuesday to having given him $150,000, much of it in cash. Talansky said that the money was supposed to be for political purposes but that he believed Olmert had used at least some of it on such luxuries as fine cigars and an Italian vacation. Olmert had earlier denied that he took any money for personal gain.
Despite the growing pressure, there has been no indication from Olmert that he plans to step aside.
Israeli Attorney General Menachem Mazuz said Thursday that he would expedite the Olmert investigation "in order to complete it as soon as possible." He did not give a time frame, but most legal analysts say the inquiry could take several more months.
Olmert's political opponents, however, hope he does not last that long.
Israeli officials with insight into Livni's strategy said that she was acting in coordination with Barak and that the two have concluded that elections are inevitable. "Their common interest for some time has been to topple Olmert," said one official, who would speak only on the condition of anonymity. "Now they see their opportunity. Olmert's losing supporters by the hour. They understand it's over for him, and they have to move."
Barak and Livni have tried to force Olmert's hand in the past, to no avail. They each called for his resignation after the botched 2006 Lebanon war, but Olmert refused.
Any election would also probably put a temporary halt to the U.S.-backed peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians.