Barak urges Olmert to quit

Israeli prime minister embroiled in corruption probe

May 29, 2008|By New York Times News Service

JERUSALEM - The political noose around Israel's prime minister, Ehud Olmert, tightened a notch yesterday when the defense minister called on him to remove himself from his post pending the outcome of a high-profile corruption investigation in which Olmert is embroiled.

But Olmert seemed determined to stay put. "The prime minister is convinced that as this investigation continues it will become absolutely clear he did nothing wrong," said an official close to Olmert. "He doesn't want to see the political process trump the legal one," the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity, because he was not authorized to discuss the matter in public.

Olmert has pledged to resign only if charged.

The defense minister, Ehud Barak, a former prime minister, was the first senior member of Israel's coalition government to insist that Olmert relinquish his office over the corruption case.

"The prime minister must disconnect himself from the daily running of the government," Barak said at a lunchtime news conference broadcast live from the parliament building. Given the heavy strategic challenges facing Israel, Barak said, he did not think Olmert could "simultaneously run the government and deal with his personal affair."

Barak convened the news conference to explain his party's position a day after Morris Talansky, a Long Island businessman at the center of the corruption investigation, testified in court here that he gave about $150,000, mostly in cash stuffed into envelopes, to Olmert over the course of 13 years. He said the money was for campaign funding and personal expenses.

Given that Olmert is not inclined to comply with Barak's demand, it was unclear what, if any, immediate effect it would have. But Barak, who heads the Labor Party, an essential junior partner in the governing coalition, dealt a further blow to the embattled prime minister. Despite Olmert's reputation as a savvy political survivor, many observers do not give him more than a few months.

"The question," said Gadi Wolfsfeld of Hebrew University's department of political science, "is at what point does the stink become so bad that the politicians feel they can no longer defend him?"

That point, he said, seemed very near.

Interviewed on Channel 2 television's evening news, Ronnie Bar-On, the finance minister and an Olmert loyalist, was asked if this was the beginning of the end for the prime minister. "I hope not," he replied.

Barak said Olmert could choose to suspend himself, take a holiday or resign, and he advised Olmert's centrist Kadima Party to act quickly to bring in a new head.

If it did not, Barak said, he would work within parliament to reach an agreed date for early elections.

But he did not set a date for Olmert to stand aside and did not take the further step of removing his party from the coalition in order to bring the government down.

Barak's declaration seemed more like a half-measure in response to pressure from critics - also within his own party - who accuse him of propping Olmert up.

Barak made a similar demand of Olmert a year ago after an official commission published a scathing interim report on the failings of Olmert's government and the military in conducting the 2006 Lebanon war.

At the time, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, Olmert's own deputy in Kadima, also called on the prime minister to resign, as did more than 100,000 protesters in Tel Aviv's Rabin Square. Olmert, however, survived.

In an unusual move, the Israeli courts ruled last week that Talansky, 75, should give an early deposition, though Olmert has not been charged. Talansky has been eager to return to the United States, and the Israeli authorities feared that he might not return to Israel if Olmert were put on trial.

Talansky portrayed the prime minister as a man with expensive tastes who failed to repay personal loans. Olmert's lawyers played down the legal implications of Talansky's testimony and urged patience until the cross-examination of the witness in mid-July.

But there is no doubt that Talansky's allegations further sullied the already tarnished public image of Olmert, who is generally unpopular and under investigation in several other affairs.

Opponents and former allies questioned whether the prime minister has enough focus or moral authority to continue running the affairs of state, which include delicate negotiations with the Palestinians over statehood, decisions about how to deal with Hamas and indirect peace talks with Syria over the Golan Heights.

Still, there is some question about how eager the Labor Party really is for early elections since Barak himself has been fairing poorly in the polls. For months, the favorite for prime minister has been the head of the opposition, Benjamin Netanyahu of the right-wing Likud.

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