Ehud Olmert has announced that he will resign as Prime Minister of Israel. Olmert will step down as soon as his replacement can be chosen. The announcement is not unexpected, yet it has cast a shadow of uncertainty over the Middle East peace process.
Ehud Olmert's government has been plagued by tragedy and controversy from the very start. In November of 2005, then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon broke away from the Likud to establish a new political party. Sharon named the new party "Kadima" - a Hebrew word which means "forward" in English. Olmert was one of the first to join the new party. After the split the Knesset voted to hold early elections. Ariel Sharon was leading in the polls and was expected to win the election by a wide margin. In January of 2006, however, Sharon suffered a massive stroke which left him in a coma. In the wake of Ariel Sharon's incapacitation, Ehud Olmert took over as acting Prime Minister and was chosen as the Kadima Party candidate. Olmert went on to win the election, however his term in office has been marred by scandal.
In recent months Olmert has faced increasing pressure to resign his post - partly as a result of his disastrous handling of the 33-day conflict with Hezbollah in the summer of 2006. He also faces multiple allegations of bribery and corruption. Olmert's popularity ratings have hit the single digits, and polls indicate that more than 70 percent of Israeli citizens think he should step down. The controversy has caused chaos in Israel's political sphere and disrupted the Middle East peace process.
Since Olmert announced his intention to resign there has been much speculation in the press about who may be chosen to take his place. When examining these possibilities it helps to understand how Israel's political system works. Israel has a multi-party system, and currently there are about 12 different political parties represented in its legislature. The three largest parties are the newly formed Kadima with 29 seats, the Labor party with 19 seats, and the Likud which holds 12 seats in the legislature. Since no single political party holds a majority, the parties must form a coalition government. Israel's 120-member national legislature, the Knesset, is elected by the people. The Knesset, in turn, chooses both the Prime Minister and the President. The Prime Minister is the head of the government and the most powerful political official, while the President's role is largely ceremonial. Members of the Knesset are elected to four year terms, but it is rare for the legislature to serve its full term. A political stalemate or failure to approve the annual budget can prompt early elections.
The leader of the political party with the most seats in the Knesset is customarily appointed to the office of Prime Minister. Therefore, whoever wins the Kadima's party leadership election in September will probably become the new Prime Minister. Currently the most likely candidates are Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz. The frontrunner, Tzipi Livni, has been described as "the second most powerful politician in Israel." She is popular and is among those who have publicly called for Olmert's resignation. Before entering politics she worked as a lawyer and was once a spy for the Mossad.
Israel is not scheduled to hold its next general election until 2010. However if the new leader of the Kadima party is unable to form a coalition government, Israel may be forced to hold early elections. If new elections are held, Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu and Labor leader Ehud Barak could have a shot at the top post. Recent opinion polls indicate that if new elections were held today, former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would be the favorite. However the race would be a close one and experts say a lot could change in the coming months. If the new Kadima leader fails to form a coalition government, and early elections must be held, it could be a much as six months before Israel has a new Prime Minister.
The man or woman chosen to replace Olmert will help to shape the future of Israel and the entire Middle East. However Israel's ultimate destiny is in God's hands. He has a plan for the nation of Israel, just as He has a plan for you and me.