Top aide quits as PMO starts crumbling

Business does not continue as usual as Olmert's trusted chief of staff announces he's leaving.

Olmert Abbas 224.88 (photo credit: AP [file])
Olmert Abbas 224.88
(photo credit: AP [file])
Despite efforts to keep up appearances, business did not continue as usual for Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on Thursday, as his trusted chief of staff, Yoram Turbowicz, announced that he would be leaving. Turbowicz, who for the last two years has done most of the heavy diplomatic lifting for Olmert, is set to leave later this month after returning from a family vacation. He is widely considered to be Olmert's closest adviser, and not only was he Olmert's point man with the Bush administration, but he also led Israel's delegation in indirect talks with Syria. Turbowicz will remain in a voluntary capacity as a special assistant to Olmert until a new framework is worked out for him, according to the Prime Minister's Office. He will continue dealing with diplomatic issues on Olmert's behalf, as well as on other projects he had been working on for the prime minister. Turbowicz is expected to continue heading up the indirect talks with the Syrians, with another round likely later this month. The adviser's announced departure seemed to render somewhat hollow Olmert and his advisers' pledge that the diplomatic process with the Palestinians and the Syrians would continue regardless of his resignation announcement. But diplomatic officials and academics said on Thursday the chances that these talks would bear any tangible fruit were now very slim. "Everything now is frozen, at least until after Pessah," one diplomatic official said, noting that both Israel and the US were entering a period of "lame duck" leadership. He said that because of this, the Palestinians and the Syrians would want to wait and see who emerged as the new leader in both countries before striking a deal. Olmert, in his resignation announcement Wednesday night, vowed to continue the diplomatic processes, and one official close to him was quoted Thursday saying that Olmert still hoped to bring about an agreement with the Palestinians by the end of the year. But, said Hebrew University political science professor Menachem Hofnung, there is almost no likelihood that such an agreement would materialize even though statutorily there is nothing to keep the government Olmert now heads from signing such an agreement. From a diplomatic point of view, Hofnung said, Olmert can "do what he wants, he can bring an agreement. But I don't think that there will be one, I don't think the sides will get into negotiations with him because they are aware of the situation - they don't want to be in a situation where another prime minister won't honor the agreements, but will want to start anew. There won't be any agreements." Hofnung said he doubted the Palestinians would be too eager now to make any type of deal with Olmert, "because of the lack of certainty" inside Israel. "If you go buy a house from a contractor who you know is in trouble, you would think twice before buying the house, no? It's the same thing here," he said. Nevertheless, Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas was quoted in Tunis Thursday by AFP as saying he would continue working with Olmert. "We will work with any prime minister elected in Israel and we will continue with Ehud Olmert until the arrival of his successor," Abbas told a press conference at the end of a visit to Tunisia. At the same time, Abbas said he doubted there would be a Middle East deal this year. On Wednesday night, the Syrian Ambassador to the UN, Bashar Ja'afari, said Olmert's resignation could affect Turkish-brokered talks between Israel and Syria. Reuters reported that when asked about whether the resignation would impact the talks, Ja'afari had said: "It could happen. I hope not." An official in the Prime Minister's Office said it was quite possible that Olmert could effectively remain in power until February 2009, if whoever wins the Kadima primary is unable to form a government. That being the case, the official said, "it is clear that everything is not going to just stand still and wait. Will [Iranian President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad stop threatening, will Hizbullah stop smuggling, will the Palestinian and the Syrians just sit and wait 100 days? It is clear that the government will need to continue to function." The official said he expected the dialogue with both the Palestinians and the Syrians would continue and that when the time came to transfer authority, Olmert would work to ensure the transition was smooth and that there was "continuity." Olmert, meanwhile, kept up appearances on Thursday - holding security briefings in Tel Aviv, where he usually spends Thursdays, and then attending a memorial service at Mt. Herzl in Jerusalem for Ze'ev Jabotinsky.