Israeli PM questioned over alleged corruption

Israel’s fraud squad on Friday questioned Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who has been dogged by corruption scandals that surfaced after he took office in 2006, police said.

The investigators, led by the head of the National Fraud Squad, Lieutenant Commander Shlomi Ayalon, questioned Olmert in his Jerusalem residence well before the announced time to avoid the throng of media gathered outside.

Public radio said the authorities had requested an hour-long interview following an important new development that emerged in recent days in investigations into corruption claims.

But the authorities would not say why Attorney General Menachem Mazuz took what local media said was the unusual step of permitting an “urgent” questioning under caution of Olmert.

The mass-circulation Yediot Aharonot reported on Friday that the authorities were examining new claims that Olmert had allegedly received kickbacks before he assumed office.

The daily claimed the affair involved large sums of cash being given by a United States businessman who is under investigation and who reportedly implicated Olmert when he was questioned during a recent trip to Israel.

Olmert’s spokesperson said on Thursday that the prime minister intended “to fully cooperate with law-enforcement officials as he has in the past.

“He is convinced that once the truth is disclosed in the framework of the police investigation, the suspicions against him will disappear,” Mark Regev said.

The former director of Olmert’s bureau, Shula Zaken, was also questioned recently in relation with corruption claims, Israeli media reported.

Olmert is already the subject of three police inquiries into suspected corruption.

The cases involve potential conflicts of interest, fraudulent property transactions and abuse of power in connection with political appointments.

In November, police said they did not have enough evidence to continue a months-long investigation into allegations of abuse of influence over the sale of the country’s second largest bank.

The probe had focused on suspicions that Olmert, when acting finance minister in 2005 under former prime minister Ariel Sharon, tried to steer the sale of Bank Leumi towards a friend, Australian real estate baron Frank Lowey.

Bank Leumi was eventually sold to another company with no links to Lowey.

Olmert denies all of the allegations.

While the latest development will do little to help his image, the prime minister has proved a survivor in the past, weathering allegations of wrongdoing, calls for his resignation, single-digit approval ratings and harsh criticism for his handling of the 2006 war in Lebanon.

Olmert first assumed the premiership in January 2006, becoming Israel’s 12th prime minister after taking over from Sharon, who had designated him as his successor before falling into a coma.

Olmert was confirmed in the post after leading his Kadima party to election victory in March 2006. — AFP

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