Olmert faces growing public mistrust over bribe scandal

Public mistrust is mounting against Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, with an opinion poll on Monday showing a majority of Israelis think he should resign over a new probe into corruption allegations.

Fifty-nine percent of Israelis want Olmert to step down and 60% don’t believe his denial of any wrongdoing, according to the survey published by the mass-selling Yediot Aharonot newspaper.

“It is possible Olmert’s government will not finish its mandate,” Interior Minister Meir Sheetrit told public radio.

Olmert’s term ends in November 2010, but there is increasing speculation he will be forced to step down or call early elections over the allegations he took bribes from a millionaire United States financier.

Only 10% of the 500 Israeli adults interviewed for the Yediot poll thought Olmert was the best suited to be prime minister, with right-wing Likud party leader Benjamin Netanyahu getting the most support, with 37%.

“The countdown for Olmert has started,” said political analyst Akiva Eldar. “Even if he overcomes his current legal woes, for public opinion it stinks, and he will become a burden, not an asset, for his party.”

Uncertainty over Olmert’s fate has also raised concerns about the future of the slow-moving peace process with the Palestinians.

And the claims of wrongdoing that emerged over the past week came at a particularly embarrassing time as US President George Bush was to head to the Middle East this week in honour of Israel’s 60th anniversary.

Bush was scheduled to meet Olmert on Wednesday and attend an official dinner at his Jerusalem residence on Thursday.

The US president will also try to revitalise efforts to broker a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians that have made little progress since the talks were relaunched at a US conference in November.

Bush, on his last visit to the region, said he hoped a peace deal could be reached by the time he leaves office in January next year.

But Palestinian officials have expressed fears the peace process could falter as investigations of Olmert continue.

Police spokesperson Micky Rosenfeld said Olmert will be questioned again as part of the probe, after anti-fraud squad officials interviewed him at his residence on May 2.

The Justice Ministry says Olmert is alleged to have unlawfully received large amounts of money from US businessman Morris Talansky in the 1990s, during his time as mayor of Jerusalem and as Industry Minister.

Olmert, who has been dogged by scandals since he took office in 2006, last week insisted he never took a bribe and said he would quit if indicted.

But he acknowledged that he had received what he said were legitimate financial contributions for various election campaigns from Talansky.

Talansky admitted on Sunday that he gave financial contributions to Olmert but insisted he had believed they were intended for legitimate purposes.

“I never thought in any way that the money I gave was illegal or wrong,” the 75-year-old Jewish financier told Israel’s private Channel 10 television in his first public comments on the scandal.

Ministers from Olmert’s centrist Kadima party have insisted the premier has the right to fight the latest suspicions of graft against him and vowed the investigation will not disrupt the government.

“The prime minister will overcome this affair. Every citizen should be allowed to prove his innocence,” Housing Minister Zeev Boim said on Sunday.—AFP

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