July 31, 2008 7:34 pm

Olmert is out, but Israel is still stuck

The downfall of Ehud Olmert, Israel’s prime minister, plunges the country, and the dim prospects for Middle East peace, into a fresh state of flux. His successor faces the almost impossible task of restoring the government’s battered legitimacy and negotiating the difficult road to a peace settlement between the Israelis and Palestinians.

Mr Olmert’s resignation became inevitable from the moment he embarked on a disastrous war against Hizbollah in Lebanon in 2006. He emerged from that ill-judged and incompetently prosecuted conflict with his credibility and authority irreparably damaged. It is a political miracle that Mr Olmert, despite his blunders, clung on for another two years. Although he has not been charged with anything, the latest of several corruption probes tarnished him so badly he could not continue in office.

Mr Olmert will not be the first prime minister to leave office branded a failure. But the manner of his departure has overshadowed his diplomatic achievements. He deserves some credit for launching the first serious peace initiative with the Palestinians in seven years and he has argued recently that creating an independent Palestinian state is in Israel’s self-interest. One can question his motives for beginning indirect talks with Syria over a possible peace agreement: his critics accused him of trying to save his skin. But a stronger leader with a popular mandate might just be able to close a deal.

Tzipi Livni, Israel’s foreign minister and a contender to succeed Mr Olmert, would be a sensible choice. Possessing a powerful intellect and untainted by corruption allegations, she might make progress. But she would first have to breathe life into both sets of negotiations. This will be hard: talks with the Palestinians are deadlocked, those with Syria barely off the ground.

Moreover, taking over a dying administration is an unattractive prospect. A decision to hold elections now might return the government with stronger support – but that is doubtful. The ruling Kadima party is so weakened that Likud, whose leader, Benjamin Netanyahu, has undermined the peace process in the past, could romp to victory. Kadima’s next leader would do better to invest energy in regrouping Israel’s centrist coalition forces before facing voters.

Either way, Mr Olmert’s resignation shows how difficult it has become in Israel’s fragmented political system to find a leader who can deliver the peace deals it must strike with the Palestinians and its Arab neighbours. The window on that possibility is closing fast.

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