JERUSALEM (JTA) – Ehud Olmert’s announcement Wednesday that he will not seek re-election plunged Israel into deep political uncertainty at a time when the country faces several crucial diplomatic tests.
Confronted with police investigations into possible illegal fund-raising activities and a climate of intense political hostility, including from leading members of his own party, the Israeli prime minister held a hastily assembled news conference Wednesday evening to announce he will resign the premiership.
The change will take effect once Olmert’s party, Kadima, chooses a new leader in primary elections scheduled for mid-September. Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz are the leading contenders for that spot.
Olmert announcement video from JerusalemOnline/Israel Channel 2 News
“Things got out of all reasonable proportion,” Olmert said in his speech, referring to what he called “ceaseless attacks” against him. “The prime minister is not above the law, but he is not by any means under it.”
Maintaining his innocence, Olmert said he would step aside for the public good.
“The time has come for me to take a decision,” Olmert said. “What is more important than what: my own personal justice or the public good?”
In the short term, Olmert’s announcement means he will stay in office as a lame duck until Kadima elects a new leader – either Sept. 17, when the party’s primary will be held, or Sept. 24, when a runoff, if necessary, will take place.
After that, Kadima’s new leader will become the acting prime minister and be charged with assembling a coalition government.
Failure to muster a majority of at least 61 Knesset members in the coalition would trigger new general elections.
Aside from casting a cloud of uncertainty over political succession, the development raised questions about how Israel’s major diplomatic initiatives will fare during this period of political transition – including peace tracks with the Palestinians and with Syria, and the effort to halt Iran’s suspected nuclear weapons program.
At the time of the announcement, Livni was meeting in Washington with U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to discuss those issues. Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who heads the Labor Party, also was out of the country, on a plane on his way home from meetings in Washington.
Israeli pundits speculated that the absence from the country of Livni and Barak, two of Olmert’s main political adversaries, was a factor in the timing of the prime minister’s announcement.
Barak could trigger new general elections by pulling his Labor Party out of the governing coalition, but he lags behind Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu in polls showing Netanyahu would handily win a general election if held today.
The method of Olmert’s departure from the political stage ensures that his successor from Kadima will be able to run for the next general election as an incumbent prime minister, possibly giving that candidate a boost.
Olmert said Wednesday that he would not mettle in the Kadima Party primary and that he sought to engender a respectful and fair political transition.
The prime minister had been under a cloud of investigations almost since his first day in office. He assumed the position of acting prime minister in January 2006 after then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon became disabled from a coma. Olmert won elections to retain the premiership in March of that year.
But the latest scandal, in which an American Jewish businessman named Morris Talansky testified that he gave Olmert $150,000 in cash over the course of the decade and a half before Olmert became prime minister, crippled Olmert’s ability to govern.
Even Olmert’s decision to re-launch Turkish-mediated peace talks with Syria and sign a cease-fire deal with Hamas in Gaza were viewed with suspicion by some who derided the moves as ploys to ensure Olmert’s political survival.
Since the Talansky scandal broke, a growing chorus of Israeli pundits, Knesset members and public intellectuals had called on Olmert to step aside, if only to allow the government to focus on the urgent threat of a nuclear Iran.
It’s not immediately clear how Olmert’s resignation will affect Israel’s campaign to stop Iran from getting the bomb.