JERUSALEM Benjamin Netanyahu, a hard-liner on territorial concessions to the Arabs, called Thursday for early Israeli elections a day after Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said he will resign over a corruption scandal.
Polls predict former prime minister Netanyahu, who leads the right-wing Likud party, would likely win if an election were held today.
"This is a government that has come to the end of its road," Netanyahu told Israel Radio. "The right thing to do when the prime minister goes is ... to let the people choose who will lead them and whoever is chosen, he is the one who will need to put together a government," he added.
Olmert said Wednesday he plans to leave office in September after a series of corruption probes against him. The most serious allegation is that he illicitly took hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash from a Jewish American fundraiser.
Olmert's decision injected new turmoil into delicate Mideast peacemaking. The leader of Israel's centrist Kadima party has been conducting peace talks with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, but there have been no visible breakthroughs in the talks, which are sponsored by President Bush, himself a lame-duck leader. Olmert has also led Israel into indirect peace negotiations with Syria.
The top two contenders to succeed Olmert as head of Kadima party are Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, a centrist with widespread public support who is leading Israeli negotiations with the Palestinians, and Shaul Mofaz, a hawkish former defense minister and military chief who headed Israel's security operations when they put down the Palestinian uprising that broke out eight years ago.
Some analysts said Olmert's departure was a clear setback to the peace process.
"It's obviously going to cause a delay, although Tzipi Livni and Olmert himself, as long as he is still prime minister, are determined to try and advance and make progress in the negotiations," said David Kimche, president of the Israel Council on Foreign Relations, a think tank.
Others were not so sure, noting that the peace talks didn't translate into major changes on the ground.
"I have never looked at Olmert as a great gift for peace or the great savior and therefore I don't feel that his political demise is the end of the peace process," said Hanan Ashrawi, a Palestinian lawmaker and former spokeswoman for peace negotiators. "This issue is much larger than one person. Individuals make a difference but at the same time, there are parties involved, national policies involved."
Zalman Shoval, a former Israeli ambassador to the U.N., thinks Israeli-Palestinian talks would proceed on a different footing under Netanyahu. Any kind of agreement at this point "would have been unimplementable" because Abbas lost control of Gaza to Islamic Hamas militants and Olmert was badly weakened after Israel's 2006 war with Lebanese guerrillas, Shoval said.
"The next government ... will definitely continue to talk to the moderate leadership of the Palestinians on the West Bank, but the emphasis will be on creating the infrastructure, certainly on the economic field, to make political solutions later on more practicable and more valid," Shoval said.
Israel's political system allows Olmert's replacement as Kadima head to carry out his term, which was to have ended in November 2010. But it is possible that the next Kadima leader will not be able to form a coalition government. In that event, new elections would be called for early next year and Olmert might stay on as a caretaker prime minister until then.
"It doesn't make any difference who heads Kadima, they are all part to a string of failures by this government, the Kadima government, and national responsibility obliges going back to the people for new elections," Netanyahu said.
As prime minister 1996-1999, Netanyahu vociferously opposed territorial concessions to the Palestinians and Syrians in peace efforts, taking a hard line that included favoring tough military action to stop Palestinian attacks.
Public opinion surveys show Livni polling strong, but Mofaz gaining strength within Kadima and Netanyahu generally trumping them both in a national vote.
Livni is visiting the U.S. this week and has not yet commented publicly since Olmert announced he would quit.
Mofaz told Israeli Radio Thursday he does not 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.
Since Olmert became prime minister in 2006, police have launched six corruption investigations against him, all involving events before he took office. The last suspicions that he double- and triple-billed charities and government ministries for identical trips delivered the final blow to his political career.
Olmert has denied any wrongdoing.
The prime minister also came under severe criticism for his handling of a monthlong war against Lebanese Hezbollah guerrillas in 2006. The war ended without achieving its two declared aims: crushing Hezbollah or returning two soldiers whose captured sparked the conflict. The two soldiers' bodies were returned to Israel earlier this month as part of a prisoner swap.