JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert vowed on Tuesday to continue talks with the Palestinians even after his party has chosen a new leader to replace him, brushing off pressure to stand down immediately over a scandal.
Olmert’s decision, announced by his spokesman after a two hour meeting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, could irk rivals in his centrist Kadima party, which holds a ballot for a new leader on Wednesday, and within the restive coalition.
In Israel, prime ministers stay on in a caretaker capacity after their resignation until a new leader is able to form a new coalition government — a process that can take many weeks.
Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said Abbas supported Olmert’s decision and “was prepared to continue negotiating with him until the last day he is prime minister”.
Allies and critics alike played down the forthcoming talks, saying Olmert will not have enough authority to commit to far-reaching concessions. But Olmert’s spokesman, Mark Regev, said: “The door to an agreement has not been closed.”
Facing possible indictment in a corruption scandal, Olmert has promised to resign as prime minister immediately after a new Kadima leader is chosen, either on Wednesday or after run-off second round that would take place next week if necessary.
“The meetings (with Abbas) will continue as long as prime minister Olmert remains prime minister of Israel, and he does so until a new government is sworn in,” Regev said.
The comments appeared to rule out the possibility, previously raised by officials, that Olmert could decline to serve as caretaker prime minister. Such a move would automatically elevate Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni to acting premier.
Livni is leading in polls to become the new Kadima leader but analysts say Transport Minister Shaul Mofaz could still win.
Regev said Olmert and Abbas would meet next after the Palestinian leader returns from the United States. Abbas’s last scheduled engagement there is on September 26, but that will be followed within days by lengthy Jewish and Muslim holidays.
Regev gave no details on the content of Tuesday’s talks, but said: “We have come a long way but more work needs to be done.”
Olmert has sought a partial deal with Abbas that would set out the borders of a future Palestinian state.
But Abbas, locked in a fierce power struggle with Hamas Islamists who control the Gaza Strip and oppose talks with Israel, has publicly insisted on nothing less than a comprehensive accord settling all “final-status” issues.
Erekat said Abbas told Olmert directly during Tuesday’s meeting that “his position remained that he will not accept partial agreements nor will he delay any of the core issues”.
Launched last November, the first final-status peace negotiations in seven years have been marred from the start by violence and disputes over Jewish settlement in the West Bank.
Olmert bowed to pressure from within his restive coalition by deferring negotiations over the future of Jerusalem and by hinging implementation of any deal on Abbas regaining control of the Gaza Strip, embarrassing the Palestinian leader.
Abbas had intended to bring any statehood agreement to a referendum tied to new Palestinian elections, which are due within the next year or so, in a bid to sideline Hamas.
But a partial deal, which would exclude Jerusalem and be implemented at an unspecified date, could be a hard sell for Abbas in an election battle with Hamas, Western diplomats said.
Additional reporting by Wafa Amr in Ramallah; Editing by Alastair Macdonald