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Israel reaching a turning point as Olmert's support ebbs

JERUSALEM — The countdown has begun.

After fending off repeated attempts to bring down his government, Ehud Olmert appears to be heading into his final months as Israel's prime minister.

Though Olmert is likely to fight for power as long as possible, his support is eroding, his influence is waning and his political rivals are plotting to bring him down while he's mired in a political corruption investigation.

"We are now at a turning point," said Yaron Ezrahi, a senior fellow emeritus at the Israel Democracy Institute, a Jerusalem policy institute. "And it seems to me the political process is leading to the end of this man's career and is unstoppable."

Olmert heads to the United States next week to meet with President Bush. The two leaders will discuss how to use their evaporating political clout to secure a peace deal between Israel and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, how to neutralize Iran's nuclear program and whether Israel should engage Syrian President Bashar Assad in substantive negotiations.

"If indeed Syria and the Palestinians are at a crossroads, the fact that (Olmert) has so weakened himself may burn that option for Israel to seize that moment," said Ezrahi. "The opportunities for a negotiated settlement are so scarce that it is a real tragedy to waste so much energy and then have it foiled by the collapse of a corrupt prime minister."

If Olmert falls, then Israelis, much like Americans, are likely to spend this fall debating whether they want a fresh face looking to cut peace deals with Syria and the Palestinians, or a more hawkish leader.

Even if Olmert weren't embroiled in a political scandal, there are significant doubts that talks can lead to breakthroughs this year because of the difficult details that have derailed previous negotiations with both Syria and the Palestinians.

"Frankly, I don't think either of those processes ever had a chance of getting very far in view of the weaknesses in the overall political leadership," said Yossi Alpher, a former senior official with Israel's Mossad spy agency who now heads the bitterlemons.org political Web site.

If Olmert steps down, there's no agreement within his Kadima party over who should take over and lead the young party, which was founded by a mix of pragmatic Israeli leaders from the left and the right.

Tzachi Hanegbi, head of the central committee of Olmert's Kadima party, told Israel Radio on Friday that Kadima delegates would convene a meeting on a leadership ballot after Olmert returns from Washington.

Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni has the strongest public support, but she has a frosty relationship with Olmert and a weak base within Kadima. Olmert is said to prefer Shaul Mofaz, former prime minister Ariel Sharon's defense minister who also served as chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces.

Neither Livni nor Mofaz, however, has enough popular support to defeat opposition Likud party leader Benjamin Netanyahu, the former prime minister who's best positioned to assume power if elections were held today.

Netanyahu has criticized Olmert for pursuing talks with Abbas and Assad, and the Likud leader would most likely halt both negotiations.

Netanyahu's political position, however, would depend on whether American voters choose John McCain or Barack Obama, the two likely major party nominees, as their next president, said Shmuel Sandler, a political science professor at Israel's Bar-Ilan University.

"I think everything will start anew," said Sandler. "I don't see a big change, but it will coincide with a new administration in Washington, and a lot will depend on who is elected. With McCain, he will be able to be more hawkish than with Obama."

Though Olmert weathered intense pressure last year to step down after an independent commission criticized his handling of the 2006 summer war against Hezbollah in Lebanon, he appears less likely to ride out the current political corruption investigation.

Olmert's fortunes took a serious hit this week when American businessman Morris Talansky told Israeli prosecutors in a special open court deposition that he gave Olmert at least $150,000 in cash, checks and loans over the last 15 years to cover stays at five-star hotels, first-class airfare and political campaigns.

Though it's not clear that the investigation will end with an indictment of Olmert, Talansky's testimony further undermined his tenuous hold on power.

The general consensus in Israel is that it's not a matter of if Olmert will leave office, but when — and how.

His largest coalition partner, the Labor Party, stopped short of pulling out of the government this week and forcing new elections, a move that probably is a reaction to public polling that found weak support for the center-left party led by Defense Minister Ehud Barak.

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