- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 29, 2008

TEL AVIV - The deepening corruption scandal engulfing Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has thrust his deputy, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, into the spotlight as a leading candidate to succeed him and become the second woman, after Golda Meir, to run the Israeli government.

In a much-anticipated announcement yesterday afternoon, Defense Minister Ehud Barak said Mr. Olmert had become unfit to serve as prime minister because of allegations that he accepted cash donations and other gifts including expensive cigars and hotel stays.

American Jewish businessman Morris Talansky testified in an Israeli court on Tuesday that he had given Mr. Olmert about $150,000 - much of it in cash stuffed into envelopes - over a 15-year period that stretched back to Mr. Olmert’s tenure as Jerusalem mayor.

Mr. Barak, who leads the Labor Party, Mr. Olmert’s chief coalition ally, demanded that the prime minister´s party, Kadima, replace Mr. Olmert immediately, saying the Labor party otherwise will push for early elections.

“I don’t think that the prime minister can manage in parallel the government and his personal life. I think the prime minister needs to disengage himself from daily management of the government,” Mr. Barak said. “Kadima needs to do soul-searching and set a direction and select a leader.”

Analysts said Mrs. Livni is best-positioned to replace Mr. Olmert. Her status as deputy prime minister already puts her first in line to become acting prime minister if Mr. Olmert is forced from office.

With a reputation for straight talk, she is one of the most popular figures in Kadima. Mrs. Livni’s popularity rests on an image as the rare anti-politician - clean in a morass of corruption and circumspect in a country known for impulse.

Like Mr. Olmert, Mrs. Livni became a relative dove on territorial compromise with the Palestinians after coming from a pedigree of right-wing nationalist politicians who considered land swaps a folly.

“Livni leads the race. If she decides to have some courage, I think maybe she can push Olmert aside,” said Avraham Diskin, a Hebrew University political science professor.

“Since the beginning, she is perceived as a relatively popular person. The fact is that I don’t see those who are willing to risk their neck for her, and I don’t see whether her drive is strong enough.”

Mrs. Livni’s retreat last year from her call for Mr. Olmert’s resignation over the Lebanon war raised questions about whether she has the ability to ascend to the pinnacle of Israel’s bare-knuckled political system and whether a country traumatized by the war against Hezbollah would anoint a leader with no background as a senior military officer. She served as a low-level officer in the Israeli Defense Forces.

Few in Kadima are discussing the prospect of a leadership battle. Still, parliamentary member Moshe Edri from Kadima suggested that the party would find a way to nudge Mr. Olmert at the right time.

“It really looks more shaky than ever before,” Mr. Diskin said. The war in Lebanon and the two reports of the inquiry commission on it look “like a piece of cake compared to the present situation,” he said.

Mr. Olmert’s allies said the prime minister has no plans to resign until after his attorneys cross-examine Mr. Talansky in July and the state attorney decides whether to continue the investigation.

Israel’s Channel 1 television reported that despite the facade of support for Mr. Olmert, Kadima members were discussing holding primary elections for a new leader by September in anticipation of parliamentary balloting as soon as November. Other candidates to replace Mr. Olmert within the party include Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz, a former army chief of staff, and Interior Minister Meir Sheetrit.

The Labor Party could wait for weeks before deciding on a call for new elections. Most in the party want to give Kadima a chance to select a leader because they are not eager to gamble on parliamentary elections, which likely would put into power Likud Party leader and former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a vocal Olmert critic.

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