JERUSALEM - Hard-line opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu called yesterday for national elections in the wake of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's decision to step down in September under a cloud of corruption charges.
While Olmert's Kadima Party hoped to settle the leadership crisis internally in a matter of weeks, Netanyahu's demand raised the prospect of a monthslong campaign that would stall peace talks with the Palestinians.
Facing multiple corruption probes, Olmert announced Wednesday that he will resign once his party picks a new leader in September. But the primary election winner - probably Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni - would not automatically replace Olmert as head of the government.
Netanyahu, a former prime minister known for his harsh criticism of concessions to Arabs in peace negotiations, prefers a general election that he believes he would win. He leads in opinion polls, including head-to-head matches with Livni and Defense Minister Ehud Barak, the Labor party leader. Livni and Barak both favor compromise with Palestinians and Syria.
"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."
In an interview with Channel 2 TV, Netanyahu heaped scorn on Olmert's government for "a string of failures" including "groveling before (Syrian President Bashar) Assad" and what he called a "willingness to divide Jerusalem."
Olmert's term is not set to expire until late 2010, but in recent years no Israeli government has served its full term.
Vice Premier Haim Ramon, a rival of Netanyahu, said the opposition leader would probably get his wish for an election. Ramon told Channel 2 TV yesterday, "I believe we will have elections in February or March, and until then, Olmert will be prime minister."
Speaking to reporters at the United Nations in New York, Livni appealed for parties to join in a new Kadima-led governing coalition. But Israel's convoluted, fractious system of government encourages large numbers of parties and candidates, militating against a quick transition.
Kadima Party primaries are set for Sept. 17, with a second round a week later if no one wins the leadership outright.
Olmert says he will resign after Kadima chooses his replacement. Then the president, Shimon Peres, will consult the parties - a process taking several days - and pick a member of parliament to form a new government.
Presumably that would be the Kadima leader as head of the largest party. But Kadima holds only 29 seats in the fractured 120-member Israeli parliament, forcing it to find allies for a coalition government.