Israel's Olmert will quit amid corruption inquiry

JERUSALEM — Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert announced Wednesday that he will resign in September, bringing a premature end to his hopes of leading Israel into a stable era of peace with its Arab neighbors.

Facing a widening political corruption investigation, Olmert said he would step aside when his ruling Kadima Party chooses a new leader in seven to eight weeks. His term was originally set to end in 2010.

Olmert, 62, said he was reluctantly stepping aside because the expanding corruption allegations had undermined his ability to lead the nation.

"I am not doing this because I cannot fulfill my responsibilities," Olmert said in a short televised address from his Jerusalem home. "I was forced to defend myself against relentless attacks from self-appointed fighters for justice who sought to depose me from my position, when the ends sanctified all the means."

Calls for Olmert to resign increased in May after U.S. businessman Morris Talansky told Israeli police that he had given the Israeli leader tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of dollars in cash over the last 15 years.

Earlier this month, new allegations emerged that Olmert had double-billed companies and nonprofit groups for travel and then used the money to pay for family vacations.

Olmert's decision is likely to complicate efforts to reach an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal before President Bush leaves office. Israel and the Palestinian Authority, whose influence is limited to the West Bank, renewed peace talks at a U.S.-sponsored conference in Annapolis in November, after a seven-year-hiatus. More recently, Israel has renewed indirect peace talks with Syria.

Olmert "is a lame duck and this curtails his ability to do anything really dramatic in the areas of war and peace," said Yossi Alpher, a former Israeli Mossad official.

Hopes of reaching peace deals by year's end were already a long shot, and now it is all but certain that the job will be left to his successor.

Some Israeli politicians welcomed Olmert's decision.

"I think the prime minister did the right thing," said Gideon Ezra of Kadima. "It is time to establish an alternative leadership in the party."

His announcement came as Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice met in Washington with top Israeli and Palestinian negotiators, including Tzipi Livni, Israel's popular foreign minister, who is a candidate to succeed Olmert.

Some progress appears to have been made in the talks, but the sides have revealed few details, and no breakthrough on key issues appears imminent.

In a curt statement, Rice called the announcement "an internal Israeli matter." She said this week's talks — including a private meeting with Livni and sessions Wednesday with the Palestinians and with Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak — had been "very fruitful."

Possible successors

Ehud Olmert's most likely successor in the ruling Kadima Party is either Tzipi Livni, Israel's popular foreign minister, or Shaul Mofaz, the country's more hawkish transportation minister and former defense minister.

Livni is currently favored in polls by Israeli voters and members of the Kadima Party. Mofaz is believed to be favored by Olmert, who has a frosty relationship with Livni and could make it hard for her to rise as Israel's second female prime minister.

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Israel's Olmert will quit amid corruption inquiry 07/30/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, November 2, 2010 9:25am]

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