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Israel should go straight to early elections, Ehud Olmert’s top rival says

A day after Prime Minister Ehud Olmert announced he would depart political life, top rival Benjamin Netanyahu said Thursday that Israel should get rid of its current governing coalition and go straight to early elections.

Polls show the Likud Party's Netanyahu - a former prime minister who takes a hard line on territorial concessions to the Arabs - would most likely win such a race if it were held today. Olmert threw Israel's political system into turmoil on Wednesday by abruptly announcing he would step down after his Kadima Party's leadership race in September, called because of a series of corruption allegations swirling around him.

"This is a government that has come to the end of its road," Netanyahu told Israel Radio on Thursday. "It doesn't make any difference who heads Kadima, they are all part to a string of failures by this government, the Kadima government, and national responsibilty obliges going back to the people for new elections."

"The right thing to do when the prime minister goes is ... to let the people choose who will lead them and whoever is chosen, he is the one who will need to put together a government ," he said.

Olmert announced his decision to leave office in September amid a series of corruption probes whose political weight proved too heavy to bear. The most serious involves suspicions that he illicitly took hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash from a Jewish American fundraiser.

Israel's political system allows Olmert's replacement as Kadima head to carry out his term, which was to have ended in November 2010.

But it is possible that the next Kadima leader would not be able to form a coalition government, given the fractious and freewheeling nature of Israeli politics. In that event, new elections would be called, and held early next year. It's possible that Olmert could remain as a caretaker prime minister during this time.

The top two contenders to succeed him in Kadima are Livni, a centrist who enjoys widespread public support and is leading Israeli negotiations with the Palestinians, and Shaul Mofaz, a hawkish former defense minister and military chief who headed Israel's security operations when it put down a Palestinian uprising eight years ago.

Public opinion surveys show Livni polling strong, but Mofaz gaining strength within Kadima and Netanyahu generally trumping them both.

Livni is in Washington this week and hasn't yet commented publicly on Israeli media since Olmert announced he would quit.

Mofaz told Israeli Radio on Thursday that he doesn't favor early elections.

"It is in the country's interest to form the broadest possible government in order to stabilize the situation and to face the challenges Israel can expect," he said.

Those challenges include peacemaking with the Palestinians and Syria, and the Iranian nuclear threat.

Since Olmert became premier, police have launched six corruption investigations against him, all involving events that took place before he took office. The last - suspicions that he double- and triple-billed charities and government ministries for identical trips - delivered the final blow to his political career.

Olmert, who has been dogged by corruption allegations throughout his career but never convicted, has denied any wrongdoing.

He also came under severe criticism for his handling of Israel's monthlong war against Lebanese Hezbollah guerrillas in 2006. The war ended without achieving its two declared aims: crushing Hezbollah or returning two soldiers whose captured sparked the conflict.

Their bodies were returned to Israel earlier this month as part of a prisoner swap.

"The Olmert era: The End" - proclaimed the Maariv daily on its front page Thursday. "The right step" - declared the Yediot Ahronot daily. Both showed Olmert from the back, his head bowed, on the patio of his official residence, where he announced his plans to quit.

"Ehud Olmert has mercifully spared Israel the shameful potential ignominy of having a prime minister indicted while in office," the Jerusalem Post newspaper wrote in an editorial.