The Israeli prime minister, Ehud Olmert, tonight announced that he will step down, throwing the country into political turmoil.
Olmert, who has been dogged by allegations of corruption, said he would give up his post when his ruling Kadima party chooses a new leader on September 17.
In a surprise announcement from his official residence in Jerusalem, Olmert said: “I have decided I won’t run in the Kadima movement primaries, nor do I intend to intervene in the elections. When a new (Kadima party) chairman is chosen, I will resign as prime minister to permit them to put together a new government swiftly and effectively.”
Olmert’s brief address included harsh criticism of police investigations of corruption allegations against him. He said he was choosing the public good over personal justice.
The Israeli prime minister’s declaration clears the way for rivals to form a new government. Several Kadima ministers, including the foreign minister, Tzipi Livni, have already thrown themselves into the succession battle.
Olmert’s successor as Kadima party leader would not automatically take over as prime minister. He or she must first form a coalition government, a tough challenge given the bitter divisions in parliament.
The process of replacing Olmert could last for months and could lead to early national elections with polls pointing to a victory by the right-wing Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu. A Likud victory would not bode well for George Bush’s efforts to clinch a peace deal before the US presidential election in November.
Of the accusations levelled at Olmert, the two most prominent investigations involve suspicions that Olmert took bribes from an American businessman, and charges he submitted duplicate claims for travel expenses in a former capacity as trade minister and mayor of Jerusalem.
Olmert has denied any wrongdoing, but has said he would resign if indicted. The prime minister has seen his political ratings sink, following criticism of the way he handled the war against Hizbullah in Lebanon in 2006 and because of the whiff of scandal.
Moshe Talansky, a US businessman, has accused Olmert of accepting envelopes containing hundreds of thousands of dollars during his tenure as Jerusalem mayor and as a cabinet minister before he was elected prime minister in 2006.
The money is alleged to have been spent on expensive cigars, first-class travel and luxury hotels, by Talansky under cross-examination.
Police suspect the money was meant as bribes — although Talansky insisted he never got anything in return — or illegal campaign financing.
Talansky’s testimony in May damaged Olmert’s credibility among Israelis and the resulting uproar forced the prime minister’s Kadima party to set new leadership elections, to be held by September 25.
Olmert’s premature departure from office could hamper or delay his government’s efforts to conclude a peace deal with the Palestinians and resume full negotiations with Syria.