Iran General NewsWith Palestinian talks going nowhere, Iran jumps to top...

With Palestinian talks going nowhere, Iran jumps to top of in-tray for new PM

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ImageGuardian: Ehud Olmert's announcement that he will step down from his party's leadership may be hardly surprising given the problems generated by corruption allegations and plummeting poll ratings.

The Guardian

  • New Kadima leader will face difficult election
    Change means uncertainty for Syrian negotiations

Ian Black, Middle East editor

ImageEhud Olmert's announcement that he will step down from his party's leadership may be hardly surprising given the problems generated by corruption allegations and plummeting poll ratings.

His departure from the Israeli political scene leaves not only uncertainty about who will succeed him as Kadima leader – and who will win the next election – but also unresolved and highly sensitive questions about the great issues of war and peace in the Middle East.

Israel's talks with the Palestinians, already at a low ebb, will likely see very little difference. Only last week Olmert made clear he felt what most observers had already concluded: that there was no chance of success before the end of this year. That was the deadline set by President George Bush when he belatedly got involved in the peace process at the Annapolis summit last December, generating wildly unrealistic expectations.

On the plus side, Olmert was said to have developed excellent personal chemistry with Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president and Fatah leader, though that never translated into a breakthrough on an agreement, not least because the Palestinians were divided after Hamas took over the Gaza Strip last summer. Abbas was also impaired by being a weak leader who was never likely to deliver.

Tzipi Livni, Israel's foreign minister, is the candidate most likely to take a positive attitude to peace negotiations with the Palestinians. Tough, hard-working and famously determined, the woman known as "Mrs Clean" has not hidden her ambition to be the only woman in the top job since Golda Meir: "I want to be prime minister … in order to carry out changes and corrections because [the public] no longer has confidence in politicians and this confidence should be restored," she said this week.

Livni's main challenger for the Kadima leadership will be "Mr Security", Shaul Mofaz, a hawkish former chief of staff and defence minister who generated global headlines recently when he said it was "inevitable" that Israel would attack Iran's nuclear installations.

Israeli leaders across the political spectrum have made clear that while they support diplomatic pressure and sanctions to stop Iran acquiring the bomb, they view a nuclear Islamic Republic, with a president who denies the Holocaust and regularly lambasts the Jewish state, as an "existential" threat. Whoever succeeds Olmert will find Iran the hottest item in their in-tray.

Olmert's departure could mean uncertainty for peace talks on another front: Syria. Negotiations with President Bashar al-Assad began this year shortly after Israeli planes bombed a suspected nuclear site in the north of the country. True, they are held only indirectly through Turkish mediators, but any discussion must come eventually to the Golan Heights, occupied by Israel since 1967.

Israel's strategic goal is to detach Syria from its alliance with Iran and to neutralise Tehran's Lebanese Shia ally, Hizbullah, whose David-versus-Goliath performance in the 2006 war did so much to weaken Olmert's standing.

Israel's unequal bodies-for-prisoners swap with Hizbullah was designed in part to buy quiet on that front. But it is still struggling to secure the release of a soldier being held captive in Gaza, with Hamas demanding the freedom of hundreds of Palestinians in return.

Livni would be likely to follow the general thrust of Olmert's policies. Like him, she backed Ariel Sharon, the founder of Kadima, when he pulled out of Gaza unilaterally in 2005. She talks of the urgent need for a "workable" two-state solution – though the realities of Israeli settlement on the ground, the West Bank separation wall and bypass roads for Jewish settlers make that increasingly hard to envisage. But she is certainly no dove.

Mofaz, by contrast, is likely to pledge no return of the Golan Heights to Syria, ever; no division of Jerusalem, ever; and no territorial compromise with the Palestinians until they defeat "terrorism".

With elections likely in spring 2009, one scenario is that Mofaz's hardline views will endear him to the opposition Likud party, creating the possibility of Kadima forming a coalition government with Binyamin Netanyahu. Indeed, one likely outcome of Olmert's demise is that it will hasten the day when Netanyahu will again be Israel's prime minister.

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