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Olmert plows ahead on peace talks

Israeli prime minister resigns from his post, but vows to pursue a deal with Palestinians and Syrians.

By Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / August 1, 2008

Departure: Ehud Olmert said Wednesday that he would cede his party's leadership in September.

Eliana Eponte/Ap


Tel Aviv

Peace talks between Israelis and Arabs are on hold until further notice.

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That's the conventional wisdom in the wake of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's announcement Wednesday that he'll resign: He's a lameduck leader with no leverage.

But Mr. Olmert is charging full-speed ahead, say analysts and aides, although his persistence in pursuing a peace deal with the Palestinians and the Syrians appears to be as an eleventh-hour attempt by the disgraced prime minister to recast his political legacy.

Still, the question remains: Will his efforts be taken seriously in the Middle East, the United States, or in his own country?

"He wants to leave a legacy," says Yossi Alpher, coeditor of the Israeli-Palestinian Web journal "The ordinary profile of someone in his position is of a caretaker. But he might behave differently. He might feel more liberated."

Olmert might also have considerably more time beyond his party's September leadership contest, the date he set for his resignation. At that point, he'll become the head of a transition government, retaining all the powers of prime minister theoretically for months afterward – but only if a Kadima Party successor fails in winning a vote of confidence in parliament and is forced to a general election.

An unnamed official close to Olmert told Reuters on Thursday that the prime minister plans to pursue an agreement with the Palestinians before he leaves office – and he said as much in his resignation speech.

"We are closer than ever to understandings that are liable to be the basis for agreements on two tracks of rapprochement – the Palestinian and the Syrian," Olmert said. "As long as I serve in my position, I will not rest from the attempt to bring the negotiations between us and our neighbors to a successful conclusion."

Officially, the Palestinian Authority has stuck to its traditional position of resisting the temptation to actively jump into Israel's volatile political fray.

Negotiator Saeb Erekat called Olmert's announcement part of domestic Israeli affairs that would not affect the peace talks. "It's none of our business," he told the Associated Press.

On the one hand, Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas has staked his entire presidency on the US-mediated negotiations with Israel. If Olmert chooses to pursue an agreement while he is still in office, Mr. Abbas has few alternatives. Abandoning the talks would give the rival Hamas party, which controls the Gaza Strip, a moral victory.

"He doesn't have a choice, because he's between a rock and a hard place," says Munther Dajani, a professor of political science at Al Quds University. "The only other card he has to play is to go home and dismantle the Palestinian Authority."