Embattled prime minister

The Baltimore Sun

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's visit to Washington gives him something to talk about besides cash-filled envelopes from an American Jewish businessman. His expected meeting today at the White House provides an opportunity for Mr. Olmert to act as a statesman and leave behind the allegations of political corruption that have preoccupied Jerusalem. He can focus on peace talks, not suspected illegal campaign contributions. It's a momentary reprieve because Mr. Olmert's political troubles are sure to preoccupy him when he returns to Israel and could force him out of office before an agreement with the Palestinians is reached.

Key players in Mr. Olmert's government have said the prime minister can't continue to serve under a cloud of suspicion. Testimony from New York businessman Morris Talansky has Mr. Olmert accepting thousands of dollars in cash payments while visiting the states over 15 years. Mr. Olmert, the former mayor of Jerusalem and government minister under Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, has denied any wrongdoing. If he were to step down, it could force new elections. Any change in leadership would likely derail efforts to reach a peace agreement before President Bush leaves office, an objective Mr. Bush embraced late in his presidency - too late, really.

Despite his close friendship with Mr. Olmert, Mr. Bush has offered neither the leadership nor the diplomatic incentives needed to secure a deal with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas or help Mr. Olmert achieve it. The slow pace of negotiations, begun after Mr. Bush's hastily arranged Mideast summit in Annapolis last November, has yielded few, if any, developments. Still, the president and his guest should have plenty to talk about today - Israel's secret discussions with Syria (facilitated by Turkey), its destruction of a suspected nuclear facility in Syria, Iran's continuing threat to Israel and that country's nuclear ambitions. But finding ways to reach consensus with the Palestinians? Not going to happen.

If Mr. Olmert is forced to resign, new elections could be held in the fall. That would send Israeli-Palestinian talks in free fall or shut them down. It's going to take a strong, confident leader, a prime minister committed to a peace agreement, to break the impasse with the Palestinians and deliver an agreement with the most elemental requirements. Mr. Olmert may no longer be that person.

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