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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.

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At the same time, Abbas may be reluctant to make politically risky compromises in peace talks with an outgoing Israeli prime minister who's mandate to negotiate is already being challenged, analysts said.

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Israel and Syria are scheduled to hold a new round of indirect talks in Turkey in August, but most observers doubt that Damascus will take Olmert seriously as a negotiating partner.

The remote chances for a breakthrough before his announcement Wednesday have all but been eliminated.

"Nothing much substantive will happen," says Steven Cook, a Middle East expert at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. "It will be essentially treading water while they wait to see who will be the next prime minister of Israel."

More broadly in the region, there's a cynicism among Israel's neighbors that no matter who is the next prime minister, Israel's fractious parliament will prevent them from taking the political risks for peace, Mr. Cook says.

"There's a view that it actually doesn't matter who is going to be Israeli prime minister," he says. "From the Arab perspective there's a certain frustration with political instability in Israel and that political instability makes it difficult for Israelis to have a coherent approach."

Israel has held four elections in the last decade because successive prime ministers have failed to hold together their governing coalitions.

The conventional wisdom among Israeli commentators in the wake of Olmert's announcement is that the leading candidates to succeed him, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz, will be hard pressed to satisfy enough political parties to win a vote of confidence in the parliament. That is likely to trigger a fifth election.

Peace process proponents note that Olmert will retain the legal authority to set Israeli security and diplomatic policy as the head of a transitional government. If he is able to reach a deal with the Palestinians or the Syrians, it will still be subject to the approval of the parliament and possibly even a referendum.

Avshalom Vilan, a lawmaker from the dovish Meretz Party, said that while he believes that the Israeli public would accept a breakthrough deal with an Arab peace partner, he thinks its an unlikely possibility.

Even though Olmert was lauded for resigning on his own, his weak public credibility is likely to limit support for future negotiations.

"This is unbelievable chutzpah," says Yuval Steinitz, a lawmaker from the opposition Likud party about Olmert's plans to continue talks. "He has announced he will resign, and then will finalize [a treaty] that will restrict future governments. We see it as part of his moral deficiency."

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