JERUSALEM Israel's right-wing Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu called on Thursday for an early election to replace Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, whose pledge to resign has deepened uncertainty over Middle East peacemaking.
Top advisers said Olmert could stay in office for months as caretaker premier, long enough to pursue talks with the Palestinians and Syria. But politicians said the scandal-plagued leader had no mandate to commit Israel to any deals.
"He has no legitimacy, not from the public, nor the Knesset, nor the government, to reach any understandings with the Palestinians or with Syria that would bind the government," said Communications Minister Ariel Attias of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, a member of Olmert's governing coalition.
Olmert said on Wednesday he would step down after a September 17 vote within his centrist Kadima party to choose a new leader.
Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni has emerged as the leading candidate inside Kadima to succeed Olmert, but opinion polls show more Israelis would support Netanyahu, a vocal critic of the government's peace moves, in a parliamentary election.
It could take months for a new Kadima leader to assemble a coalition majority, and Vice Premier Haim Ramon told Channel Two television that Olmert could remain in office as caretaker until February or March, assuming new elections are called.
An Israeli official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Olmert would seek a statehood agreement with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas "during the time he has left" in office.
Livni, Israel's chief negotiator with the Palestinians, said in New York that the negotiations were continuing despite Olmert's announcement.
But analysts said it was not realistic to expect Olmert to succeed in clinching sweeping peace accords. "Who is going to make a deal with him when they know he can't deliver? He is a lame duck," professor Gadi Wolfsfeld of Hebrew University said.
Speaking in Tunisia, Abbas pledged to work with Olmert and his successor despite the "turmoil" in Israel.
Four Kadima ministers have launched campaigns to replace Olmert in the September 17 vote. Livni's closest rival for the post is Transport Minister Shaul Mofaz, a former defence chief known for his tough tactics in crushing a Palestinian uprising.
Netanyahu could try to thwart Kadima's plans to form the next government by mustering a majority in parliament, either to form his own coalition or move up elections scheduled for 2010.
"This government has reached an end and it doesn't matter who heads Kadima," Netanyahu said. "National responsibility requires a return to the people and new elections."
A poll conducted by Israel's Channel Two television after Olmert's announcement showed 39 percent support for Netanyahu becoming prime minister compared to 34 percent for Livni.
Israeli sources said Olmert and U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice would try to keep up momentum in the peace talks with the Palestinians. They said Rice was expected to visit Israel in mid-August for three-way talks.
Olmert, whose popularity plummeted after the 2006 Lebanon war, has faced weeks of public pressure to step down over probes into suspicions he took bribes from a Jewish American businessman and made duplicate claims for travel expenses.
Police said Olmert, who has denied any wrongdoing, would be questioned for a fourth time on Friday.
Israeli newspapers featured front-page photos of the prime minister walking away from the cameras after his announcement, with one headline hailing his departure as "The Right Step".
(Additional reporting by Joseph Nasr, Ari Rabinovitch and Avida Landau in Jerusalem; Writing by Adam Entous; Editing by Alistair Lyon)