- The Washington Times - Friday, August 1, 2008

JERUSALEM | Hard-line opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu called Thursday for national elections in the wake of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s decision to step down in September under a cloud of corruption charges.

While Mr. Olmert’s Kadima party hoped to settle the leadership crisis internally in a matter of weeks, Mr. Netanyahu’s demand raised the prospect of a months-long campaign that would stall peace talks with the Palestinians.

Facing multiple corruption probes, Mr. Olmert announced Wednesday that he will resign after his party picks a new leader in September. But the primary election winner - probably Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni - would not automatically replace Mr. Olmert as head of government.

Mr. Netanyahu, a former prime minister known for his harsh criticism of concessions to Arabs in peace negotiations, prefers a general election. which he believes he would win. He leads in opinion polls, including head-to-head matches with Mrs. Livni and Defense Minister Ehud Barak, the Labor Party leader. Mrs. Livni and Mr. Barak both favor compromise with Palestinians and Syria.

“This is a government that has come to the end of its road,” Mr. Netanyahu told Israel Radio. “The right thing to do when the prime minister goes is … to let the people choose who will lead them.”

In an interview with Channel 2 TV, Mr. Netanyahu heaped scorn on Mr. Olmert’s government for “a string of failures” including “groveling before [Syrian President Bashar] Assad” and what he called a “willingness to divide Jerusalem.”

Mr. Olmert’s term officially does not expire until late 2010, but in recent years no Israeli government has served its full term.

Vice Prime Minister Haim Ramon, a bitter rival of Mr. Netanyahu, said the opposition leader would probably get his wish for an election. Mr. Ramon told Channel 2 TV on Thursday, “I believe we will have elections in February or March, and until then, Olmert will be prime minister.”

Kadima party primaries are set for Sept. 17, with a second round a week later if no one wins the leadership outright.

Mr. Olmert said he will resign after Kadima chooses his replacement. Then President Shimon Peres will consult the parties - a process taking several days - and pick a member of parliament to form a new government.

Kadima holds only 29 seats in the fractured 120-member Israeli parliament, which forces it to find allies for a coalition government.

Mr. Olmert’s current coalition partners are not sure to sign back on. Labor Party members are already making it clear that their participation is not automatic.

Mr. Olmert’s other partner, the ultra-Orthodox Jewish Shas party, is ideologically more comfortable with hard-liners like Mr. Netanyahu. If polls show Shas maintaining its strength or improving its position, it might also favor an election.

With few other options for putting together a coalition with a majority in parliament, the new Kadima leader might fail to form a government - forcing an election.

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