Olmert coalition ally demands he step aside

Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak called on Wednesday for Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to step aside over corruption allegations or face a collapse of his coalition that would disrupt peace talks with the Palestinians.

A day after an American businessman told an Israeli court how he handed Olmert envelopes stuffed with thousands of dollars in cash, Barak held a news conference to lay out the position of his Labour Party, the junior partner in Olmert’s coalition.

Though Barak, himself a former prime minister, stopped short of action that would immediately bring down the government, the political turmoil threatened to derail United States efforts to secure an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal before President George Bush steps down in January.

“I do not think the prime minister can run, in parallel, the government and deal with his own personal affair,” Barak said.

“Therefore, out of a sense of what is good for the country and in accordance with the proper norms, I think the prime minister must disconnect himself from the daily running of the government.

“He can do this in any of the ways open to him—suspension, vacation or resignation, or declaring himself incapacitated. We will not be the ones to determine this.”

Barak put the onus on Olmert’s centrist Kadima Party to seek a new leader to replace the prime minister: “If Kadima does not act and a government is not formed during this current session of Parliament that is to our liking, we will act towards setting an agreed and early date for elections.”

A parliamentary election is not due until 2010. A defection by Labour would almost certainly force an early ballot.
Polls indicate that the right-wing opposition Likud, led by Benjamin Netanyahu, could be the strongest party after any snap election.

Netanyahu is deeply sceptical of the present peace processes with the Palestinians and with Syria.

There was no immediate comment from Olmert.

Options

Should Olmert (62) step aside temporarily while prosecutors pursue the corruption case against him, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, as his deputy in Kadima and the Cabinet, would almost certainly take over, for an interim period of 100 days.

Livni is the main negotiator with the Palestinians.

US businessman Morris Talansky testified on Tuesday that he gave Olmert $150 000 in cash-stuffed envelopes, including personal loans that were never repaid, over a 15-year period before the veteran politician became Israel’s leader.

Even in a country where many assume corruption at the top is rampant, the image painted in court of a politician with a penchant for expensive cigars and for cash over cheques offered by the American Jewish fundraiser was extraordinary.

Olmert, whose defence attorneys will cross-examine Talansky only in July, has acknowledged receiving money from the New York-based businessman, but said the funds were legal election campaign contributions.

Denying any wrongdoing, he has said he would resign if indicted.

Tal Silberstein, an Olmert adviser, told Israeli Army Radio before Barak’s news conference that the prime minister had no intention of stepping aside now. If Olmert resigns outright, it would fall to President Shimon Peres to appoint any member of Parliament to try to form a new government.

Barak, prime minister from 1999 to 2001, did not make good on a threat to end his political partnership with Olmert after the costly 2006 Lebanon War.—Reuters

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