By Walid al-Mudallal, Assistant Professor for Political Science at Gaza Islamic University
After months of being dogged by corruption scandals and calls for his resignation, Israeli President Ehud Olmert’s decision to step down has stirred political uncertainty in Israel and plunged the stalled peace talks into confusion.
Israel’s press is largely unsurprised by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s resignation that he would leave office after coming under pressure over mounting corruption allegations.
Most commentators see Olmert’s departure as inevitable, with one paper describing it as a “tragedy”. Palestinian commentators fear Israeli political instability might have a detrimental impact on the peace process.
Israel’s Prime Minister Olmert made many promises, but didn’t keep many of them. He could barely even set a course for the Middle East peace process. Some observers affirm that his successors don’t offer much hope, either.
Ehud Olmert has called it quits. When his Kadima party votes for a new leader, he will clean out his office and make way for his successor. Finally, is the sentiment felt by most Israelis, who had to watch their prime minister stumble from one affair of corruption to another for years.
Ehud Olmert was head of government for only 31 months. He took over in the difficult times of his predecessor Ariel Sharon, who suffered a cerebral hemorrhage in January 2006 and fell into a coma.
Olmert had a disappointing performance in the subsequent election. The hoped-for outstanding election win for him and the still very young Kadima Party, which Sharon had recently founded, did not materialize.
But Olmert did not contest this. He promised to finally give Israel definite borders and to make peace with the Palestinians and the neighboring Arabic countries. But he could not adhere to any of this – on the contrary. He had barely come into office when he led a war against the Hezbollah and Lebanon, which indeed from the beginning registered much agreement among the population from the beginning, but whose disappointing and casualty-high exit then almost cost him his position in office.
No peace with Palestinians
There were also no advances whatsoever in the talks with the Palestinians. Indeed Olmert regularly met Mahmud Abbas, President of the Palestinian National Authority, for so-called peace talks. But while he dealt with him, his government simultaneously agreed upon the building of new settlements and the destruction of old ones and asked Defense Secretary Ehud Barak for stronger action against the Palestinians in Gaza.
Against this background it almost appeared to be a mockery when Olmert hinted at signing an agreement with Abbas before retiring as prime minister, because neither Olmert nor Abbas can rely on the majority of their voters. Both no longer have a mandate to make decisions with far-reaching effects.
In regards to Israeli-Syrian negotiations after the resignation of Ehud Olmert, especially that Israeli Foreign Minister and leader of Kadima party Tzipi Livni had different opinions towards peace talks with Damascus, so it is expected that the Israeli-Syrian negotiations could be halted for awhile.
The situation in the Middle East will not be much better after Olmert’s leaving office. Simply because even with a new leader, it could take months for a new ruling coalition to engage in the Palestinian peace process — and the primary election winner may not automatically replace Olmert as head of the government, potentially leaving the embattled leader in the role of caretaker prime minister, possibly into the next year.
Right-wing opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu of the Likud Party called for parliamentary elections, which could lead to the formation of a new government that may not favor the negotiations track Olmert has been pursuing.
Netanyahu, a former premier known for his tough stance on how peace talks should be conducted, leads in Israeli opinion polls, including in head-to-head election matches with Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Defense Minister Ehud Barak, the Labor Party leader, the Associated Press reports.
After Olmert resigns, the Israeli president, Shimon Peres, will consult the parties and pick a member of parliament to form a new government — most likely the new head of the Kadima party.
But Kadima holds only 29 seats in the fractured 120-member Israeli parliament, forcing it to find allies for a coalition government, a process that could take time, according to the AP.
An Israeli official who is close to Olmert, speaking on the condition of anonymity to the AP, said the prime minister would try to reach an agreement with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas “during the time he has left,” either in his current role or in his upcoming one as caretaker leader.
Abbas now faces the task of trying to broker a peace deal with a lame-duck prime minister who is dogged by corruption scandals and whose agreements may or may not be upheld by the next Israeli leader.
“With or without Olmert, the negotiations have become futile,” according to Hani al-Masri, a Palestinian political analyst.
But speaking from Tunisia, Abbas pledged to work with Olmert and his successor despite the “turmoil” in Israel.
Minister of Interior Security Avi Dichter, who was previously the chief of the domestic intelligence service Shabak, is considered the actual driving force behind the targeted killings with which Israel took its political adversaries in the Palestinian regions out of the way. Interior Minister Meir Shitrit, who up to now stands out mainly through his unconditional loyalty to Olmert, essentially has no hope of becoming his successor because he lacks the necessary power base in his party.
In the meantime, Secretary of State Tzipi Livni, currently the most promising candidate, is indeed considered as the dove in her party. But she too holds a rigid and demanding position against the Palestinians.
None of the mentioned candidates to succeed Olmert is stepping forward with an original idea, none have made a creative suggestion regarding how the conflict with the Palestinians can be solved peacefully. None have displayed open-mindedness or the readiness to make compromises. May Olmert’s announced retirement could indeed make things easier, but there is no reason to hope for advances in the peace process