Key witness against Olmert cross-examined

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s lawyers began on Thursday the cross-examination of a US businessman whose damaging portrait of a politician with his hand out for cash stands at the centre of a corruption case.

“I feel a sense of honour and truth,” Morris Talansky told reporters as he prepared for what could be up to five days of questioning by Olmert’s attorneys in Jerusalem District Court.

Praising Olmert as someone worthy of support, Talansky, a New York-based fund-raiser for various Israeli organisations, testified in May that he had given $150 000 in cash-stuffed envelopes to the former Jerusalem mayor over a 15-year period.

Both Olmert and Talansky have denied any wrongdoing. Olmert has described the funds as legitimate contributions to election campaigns he waged before becoming prime minister in 2006, but said he would resign if indicted.

“Today, the truth will emerge,” said Eli Zohar, one of Olmert’s lawyers, promising to poke holes in the prosecution’s case.

Olmert’s own party, Kadima, has already begun the process of replacing him. It has scheduled a leadership election for September, under pressure from its main coalition partner, the Labour Party, to replace Olmert.

Speaking outside the courtroom, chief prosecutor Moshe Lador said he hoped a decision on whether to file charges against Olmert would be made soon, but gave no date.

In the face of a growing feeling among many Israelis that Olmert will have to step down, he has been talking up peace prospects as he clings to office.

After talks in Paris on Sunday with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Olmert said a peace deal had never been closer.
On a separate track, Israel and Syria have been holding indirect negotiations with Turkish mediation.

Amid deep public scepticism, Olmert and Abbas launched US-sponsored statehood negotiations last year with the stated aim of achieving an agreement before President George Bush leaves office next January.

But the talks have shown few signs of progress, and Palestinian leaders have complained that Israeli settlement building in the occupied West Bank could wreck chances for a deal.

Last week, Olmert was stung by a new set of corruption allegations that left many in Israel with the feeling that he would have to step down.

Police said they were investigating suspicions that Olmert made duplicate claims for overseas travel expenses while serving as Jerusalem’s mayor and trade minister. His lawyers said he had done nothing wrong. - Reuters

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