Kadima Officials Fear New Leader Won't Be Able to Form Gov't

PM could stay in office until elections if no new gov't assembled; opposition calls for snap elections.

A day after Prime Minister Ehud Olmert announced he would bow out of his party's September leadership contest and then step down, Kadima officials have said they believe the next head of the party will have a difficult time assembling an alternative government in the current Knesset.

If the next Kadima leader cannot organize a new government, then Olmert could remain in office until the next general elections, scheduled for March 2009.

Dogged by corruption scandals, the prime minister's announcement on Wednesday stirred reactions across the political spectrum.

Opposition leader and Likud Chairman Benjamin Netanyahu called on Thursday for general elections to end the government's 'total failure,' speaking a day after Prime Minister Ehud Olmert pledged to resign following his party's leadership contest in September.

"This government has reached an end and it doesn't matter who heads Kadima. They are all partners in this government's total failure," Netanyahu told Israeli Radio.

Recent opinion polls suggest Netanyahu's Likud party, a critic of Olmert's peace moves with the Palestinians and Syria, would win a snap election.

The opposition leader added: "National responsibility requires a return to the people and new elections."

Vice Premier Haim Ramon, a Kadima party leader and Olmert confidant, told Army Radio: "I believe the chance of holding new elections is high."

Four Kadima ministers, including Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Transport Minister Shaul Mofaz, have launched campaigns to replace Olmert in the Sept. 17 vote.

Polls have shown Livni, Israel's chief negotiator with the Palestinians, ahead within Kadima.

Olmert has faced public pressure to resign over probes into suspicions he took hundreds of thousands of dollars from an American businessman. The prime minister has denied any wrongdoing, and vowed on Wednesday to fight for his innocence.

Defense Minister Ehud Barak, head of the left-of-center Labor party and Olmert's senior coalition partner, told CNN that it was "not yet clear whether there will be election in three or four months from now" if Olmert steps down.

On Wednesday, Barak said: "I think it is a proper and responsible decision made at the right time."

MK Yuval Steinitz (Likud) said that the declaration marked an end to the young Kadima party.

"The only solution to the situation now created is immediate elections. Waiting any longer for Kadima primaries will cause Israel more damage," he said.

MK Reuven Rivlin (Likud) said Olmert should have made this decision months ago. "Olmert's tenure will be remembered as public bedlam and as a farce of a government."

MK Yitzhak Aharonovitch (Yisrael Beiteinu) said Olmert's announcement essentially returned the vote to the public, and said there was no way now to avoid elections. "In a democratic state, when the prime minister resigns, the nation chooses its leader."

MK Limor Livnat said that immediately after the primaries, Olmert should call for new Knesset elections.

"None of the candidates chosen in Kadima will be able to assemble a stable and function government with the current Knesset... Olmert must bring about new Knesset elections immediately after the primaries," she said.

MK Zvi Hendel (National Union - NRP) said Olmert had made the right decision, and hoped the prime minister would be able to prove his innocence.

"Out of respect for the State of Israel, I will be happy if Olmert succeeds in procing his innocence. His resignation is correct, and while it is a pity it was done so late, better late than never."

Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz of Kadima told Israeli Radio on Thursday that he doesn't favor early elections.

"It is in the country's interest to form the broadest possible government in order to stabilize the situation and to face the challenges Israel can expect," he said.

Those challenges include peacemaking with the Palestinians and Syria, and the Iranian nuclear threat.

MK Eldad: Olmert the most corrupt leader in Israel's history

MK Arieh Eldad of the right-wing National Union lambasted Olmert and his administration, calling him "the most failed and corrupt leader in the history of Israel."

He added: "It's the only good news we have heard from Olmert during his tenure."

Labor MK and party secretary Eitan Cabel focused on the political repercussions of Olmert's decision to step down. "Under the current circumstances that exist in the Knesset, it will be hard to form an alternative coalition and the possibility of an election is still on the agenda," Cabel said.

His fellow partisan Deputy Foreign Minister MK Raleb Majadele also spoke about what will happen once Olmert resigns, saying that Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni of Kadima was the only candidate who could create a coalition government without calling for new elections. "She is the only one worthy of succeeding Olmert and [former prime minister Ariel] Sharon," he said.

Other lawmakers, however, like National Religious Party Chairman, MK Zevulun Orlev called for the Knesset to be dissolved and for elections to be held as soon as possible."

"An agreed date of new elections should be decided and the Knesset should be dissolved during the summer break," Orlev said.

His call was supported by MK Yisrael Katz of the Likud who said parties should set an election date in order to ensure that government functioning continues without hindrance.

Livni: Kadima must continue to act as a leader

Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, who is considered a front-runner for Kadima party chairman, said following Olmert's announcement that "the personal decision was not simple, but it was correct. Kadima must continue to act in a way that will preserve its unity and ability to lead."

Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz, who is also vying for Kadima leadership, praised Olmert's decision as "brave."

"It proves that despite his personal crisis, he see what is good for the state, and in this difficult hour he has made the right decision," Mofaz said.

"Kadima members now have a heavy responsibility to pick the next prime minister. I know they will take this responsibility seriously," he added.

Public Security Minister Avi Dichter also welcomed Olmert's decision as a "correct and brave decision for the State of Israel, the Kadima movement, and himself personally."

Coalition chairman MK Yoel Hasson said Olmert's announcement marked a new beginning for Kadima.

"Kadima is beginning a new path. Choosing the next prime minister from Kadima is a choice to preserve the stability of government in the State of Israel. Olmert behaved tonight in the official way expected of a leader and proved his political and public responsibility," he said.