JERUSALEM – Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert resigned Sunday, brought low by a string of corruption probes, while Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni struggled to assemble a coalition that would allow her to succeed him without facing new elections.
Olmert had promised this summer to step down as soon as a new leader for his party, Kadima, could be chosen. Livni narrowly won that vote last week, and on Sunday, Olmert submitted a letter to President Shimon Peres that formally sets in motion the process of choosing a successor. Livni has already begun meeting with politicians from rival parties, trying to build a majority in the 120-member Knesset, or parliament.
Olmert’s coalition had dwindled over the past year, and most analysts say Livni faces a challenge gathering the support she needs to govern. If she does not succeed within six weeks, Israel will probably have to hold general elections in early 2009. Benjamin Netanyahu, leader of the opposition Likud party, is the current favorite in that race, with Livni close behind.
The fate of U.S.-backed peace talks initiated under Olmert could be at stake. Livni has been Israel’s primary negotiator and has vowed to continue the discussions if she assumes power, but Netanyahu has been a staunch critic of the talks.
By submitting his resignation Sunday, Olmert becomes the caretaker prime minister until a new government can be formed.
The end of his tenure comes nearly three years after then-prime minister Ariel Sharon suffered a debilitating stroke, thrusting his deputy, Olmert, into power. Olmert was later elected to a full term slated to end in 2010. He led Israel through an inconclusive but damaging war with the radical Lebanese movement Hezbollah in the summer of 2006. Last year, he relaunched long-dormant peace talks with the Palestinians. But despite great fanfare at the kick-off ceremony in Annapolis, the negotiations have appeared to gain little traction.
Olmert, the former mayor of Jerusalem, was also dogged throughout his tenure as premier by allegations of corruption. On Sunday evening, Olmert personally delivered his resignation letter to Peres, who later broadcast a statement in which he praised Olmert for “the respectful way in which he is handing over his power.”