Ehud Olmert's announcement that he will step down as Israel's prime minister in September raises questions, not just for the leadership of his Kadima party but for the Middle East peace talks. Olmert's announcement came amid allegations of corruption and a brewing fight for control of the party.
Here are some of the issues:
How will Olmert's party go about replacing the prime minister?
Olmert was already in a fight for leadership of the Kadima party, a fight that would have been settled in a party primary election called for Sept. 17. Olmert's announcement said that he wouldn't run in the primary or intervene in the general election. He added that he would step down as soon as a new party leader is chosen, so that his successors can put together a new government "quickly and effectively."
Who are the leading candidates to succeed Olmert as head of the Kadima party?
Recent polls show Israel's foreign minister, Tzipi Livni, in the lead to replace Olmert, closely followed by Shaul Mofaz, the transportation minister. Both officials happen to be in the United States at the moment, a fact that may have influenced the timing of Olmert's announcement. Livni was among the first to call for Olmert's resignation in the face of corruption scandals, and observers say he hasn't forgiven her.
Tamara Cofman Wittes, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, says the announcement pulls the rug out from under Livni's efforts to show progress on Middle East peace negotiations "because no matter what she accomplishes here in Washington, it won't matter — the peace talks have been thrown into turmoil."
David Makovsky, of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, says Livni has a reputation as "the integrity candidate," something that could make her appealing to voters tired of the corruption scandals that have dogged Olmert. He says Mofaz has organizational strength within Kadima. Mofaz is also a former Israeli army general and the government's chief negotiator on Iran. Makovsky says that could stand him in good stead with voters who see this as a dangerous time in the Middle East.
What does Olmert's decision mean for the Middle East peace process?
Wittes says this is a moment of truth for the peace process that was started in Annapolis, Md., last November, with the aim of producing a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian crisis. She says Livni's talks with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in Washington were considered crucial for the Bush administration to decide "what, if anything, they could accomplish before the end of the administration."
The problem now, Wittes says, is how to preserve whatever progress has been made toward an agreement until a new administration can take up the issues.
Makovsky says that won't be easy. He says Rice has been trying to get a summation of areas in which the two sides have made concessions and closed some of the gaps between them, but that neither side particularly wants to leave a record of its concessions unless it's accompanied by a record of its gains.