Israel’s ‘tragic hero’ PM faces criticism, plunging polls

OCCUPIED JERUSALEM (AFP) — Beleaguered Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert faced increased criticism and plummeting polls Friday after returning empty-handed from a summit with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

Meanwhile, international diplomatic efforts to jumpstart the dormant Middle East peace process gained momentum, with US President George W. Bush pledging to send his top diplomat to the region shortly.

An opinion poll published in the Yediot Aharonot daily showed that 77 per cent of Israelis were dissatisfied with Olmert’s performance — and 62 per cent judged him incapable of handling tense situations.

“Olmert resembles more and more a tragic hero, incapable of rebounding from the disaster of the second Lebanon war” this summer against Hizbollah, the liberal Haaretz daily said.

The Israeli premier met with Egyptian president in the Red Sea resort of Sharm El Sheikh on Thursday, but the encounter failed to produce an expected breakthrough in talks on a prisoner swap deal between Israel and the Palestinians — one of the main stumbling blocks to restarting the peace process. In an interview with Yediot published Friday, Mubarak, who has been negotiating between the two sides on the issue, said that more efforts were needed before the deal would be clinched. “There are occasional signs of progress, but there are also signs attesting to problems,” he said. “I certainly expect us to reach a deal, for the exchange to be carried out and for this story to end. But more efforts have to be invested… It will take more time due to the internal struggles.” Mubarak said that the eventual release — in which Palestinian fighters would free an Israeli soldier seized in late June in exchange for the liberation of Palestinian prisoners from Israeli jails — would come in stages.

“The Palestinians demand the release of a number of prisoners as a first gesture, and in return we will receive the Israeli hostage from them,” he said. “Then, additional prisoners will be relased.” “There are thoughts, on which there is no agreement yet, for a gesture to be carried out of releasing Palestinians first. In practice, however, we have not yet reached this stage.” Olmert has also been under fire for continuing corruption allegations surrounding him, his office and members of his government.

This week, his personal secretary Shula Zaken was put under house arrest following questioning over corruption suspicions, along with the head of the Israel tax authority, Jacky Matza.

Police also said they were investigating Finance Minister Avraham Hirshson, of Olmert’s Kadima Party, for graft. The premier himself has been the subject of numerous corruption probes over past property deals and appointments, although no charges have been filed.

In Washington, meanwhile, the US president agreed to the call from Germany, which assumed the six-month European Union presidency and the year-long leadership of the Group of Eight industrialised countries this month, for a new Middle East peace push.

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