- The Washington Times - Friday, May 30, 2008

TEL AVIV - Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni became the first leading figure in Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s ruling Kadima Party yesterday to openly nudge the prime minister to resign in a corruption scandal.

Mrs. Livni, a popular political figure widely considered the front-runner to replace Mr. Olmert should he quit, told reporters that Kadima should hold a leadership primary election to prepare for the possibility of a general election that could take place as early as the end of the year.

“We can’t ignore the events of the last few days,” she told reporters. “The issue is not purely legal, and the test is not what is or is not criminal. It’s not the personal issue of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.”

Testimony this week that Mr. Olmert accepted $150,000 cash from a U.S. businessman has ratcheted up public pressure on him to step aside.

Mrs. Livni’s announcement came a day after Defense Minister Ehud Barak, leader coalition partner of the Labor Party, called on Mr. Olmert to step aside or face new elections. Support from Labor is crucial for the present government to retain the prime minister post.

The political turmoil in Israel has cast a shadow over efforts to reach an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement by the end of the year as well as recently revived peace talks with Syria.

It comes on the eve of a planned visit by Mr. Olmert in the United States.

The prime minister is fighting to put off any decisions about his political fate until his lawyers have the chance to cross-examine American Jewish businessman Morris Talansky.

Mr. Talansky told an Israeli court Tuesday that he helped purchase high-end cigars, hotel suites, and first-class airline tickets.

Mrs. Livni is deputy prime minister and would automatically be made acting prime minister if Mr. Olmert decided to resign or even suspend himself. But for the time being, Mr. Olmert has given no indication that he will step down.

The public outrage over the scandal investigations against Mr. Olmert may work in Mrs. Livni’s favor. She is untainted by corruption scandals that are common in Israeli politics.

According to a public opinion poll commissioned for the Ha’aretz newspaper, voters are most concerned about the candidate for prime minister being corruption free.

The perception of Mrs. Livni as a straight shooter will help her in the upcoming party battles as well as in public opinion.

She is likely to face two candidates within Kadima, both of whom have top-level experience in Israel’s security establishment - Shaul Mofaz, a former army chief of staff and defense minister, as well as Avi Dicther, a top official at the Shin Bet domestic intelligence agency.

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