/ 9 May 2008

Olmert resists calls to quit over bribery probe

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert faced a barrage of calls to resign on Friday after he admitted taking cash from an American businessman at the centre of a police investigation into suspected bribery.

But Olmert, whose departure could disrupt United States-sponsored peace negotiations with the Palestinians, continued with his duties after telling the nation in a late-night televised address on Thursday that he would resign only if the attorney general could produce sufficient evidence to indict.

The prime minister, who had earlier overseen festivities for the 60th anniversary of Israel’s founding, was due to address a meeting of Canadian Jews in Jerusalem on Friday morning. He will welcome US President George W. Bush to Israel on Wednesday.

”Millions of shekels — cash in hand,” screamed the front page of top-selling tabloid Maariv in cover of a probe in which legal sources say Olmert took hundreds of thousands of dollars from a New York financier tagged ”The Laundry Man” in coded records that investigators say were kept by Olmert’s secretary.

Newspapers freed from a gag order on the investigation splashed lengthy coverage of an affair that broke as Israelis celebrated the 60th anniversary of the state’s founding — although some questioned the strength of the prosecutors’ case after a series of other inquiries that failed to indict the premier.

”It is doubtful Olmert can survive the current investigation,” wrote Nahum Barnea, a senior columnist for Yedioth Ahronoth daily.

”If not because of the Talansky affair, … then because of the cumulative effect of all the ongoing investigations against him.”

Look in the eyes

In Maariv, commentator Shalom Yerushalmi, noted how Olmert, in a late-night televised statement had told Israelis he never took bribes and described the money from Morris Talansky as campaign donations managed by Olmert’s former law partner.

”Prime Minister Ehud Olmert looked yesterday into the eyes of each and every one of us and asked us to believe him,” Yerushalmi wrote. ”If the public could respond collectively it would, of course, ask: Why? For how many years can we hear about your escapades with the police and go on believing you?”

Many Israelis have become used to tales of graft at the top — the son of Olmert’s predecessor Ariel Sharon is in jail at the moment for raising secret funds for his father’s campaign, but many other investigations have not led to punishment.

Some cited a lack of an obviously popular successor.

”Olmert is a slick lawyer and he will get out of this affair as he did in the other cases,” social worker Adam Haisrael (31) said, adding that he believed Olmert would play up the need for stability in government to talk peace and face up to threats.

”He isn’t fit to be prime minister but the problem is that there is no one worthy to replace him. They’re all seen as corrupt opportunists. But I do hope there’ll be some public awakening that will push him to resign.”

Olmert has defended himself against a handful of other inquiries since he became prime minister in 2006.

The right-wing opposition Likud party, which Olmert once represented before bolting to the new, centrist group Kadima, is keen for a snap election that opinion polls suggest it and its leader Benjamin Netanyahu could dominate:

”Olmert and the Kadima government have no public legitimacy, no moral legitimacy, and we will not support them in any agreement or in any military move,” said Likud member of Parliament Yuval Steinitz.

Shelly Yecimovitch, a member of Olmert’s main coalition partner Labour Party, also called on Olmert to resign — although Labour leader Ehud Barak has so far not commented.

Yecimovitch said Olmert had ”proved beyond any shadow of a doubt he cannot distinguish between being a suspect and being a prime minister”. – Reuters