Olmert faces political ruin over bribes inquiry

A new, potentially devastating corruption investigation into the financial affairs of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert threatens to unseat him.

If Mr Olmert, who was questioned by police under caution last Friday, and will be questioned again next week, is formally charged, he will be forced to resign. The investigation involves at least two of Mr Olmert’s closest associates, who have been repeatedly questioned over the past few days. One is believed to be considering turning state’s witness.

“The State of Israel against Ehud Olmert” is the heading of a document handed to the Jerusalem District Court on Tuesday morning by the Justice Ministry. For the time being, this is not an official charge-sheet; it is an application for the court to hear “preparatory testimony” for a case that may never take place. But it is the closest the Israeli judiciary has ever come to putting a serving prime minister on trial, and the investigation has cast a pall over the 60th-anniversary celebrations.

Mr Olmert is no stranger to police investigations. But the swift and resolute fashion in which the police and Justice Ministry have conducted themselves is being seen as indicating that this time, they believe they have the necessary evidence to press charges against him for bribe-taking.

Two potential witnesses have emerged in the case so far. The first is Moshe (Morris) Talansky, a Long Island businessman and realtor with family in Israel. Mr Talansky has been a major and longstanding fundraiser for various Israeli institutions such as Shaare Tzedek Hospital, the Jerusalem College of Technology (where one of his sons teaches) and the New Jerusalem Foundation.

The second is Uriel Messer, a long-time friend and confidant of Mr Olmert; the two were partners in the same Jerusalem law firm. The police, acting first on evidence raised by investigators from the State Comptroller’s Office looking into another allegation against Mr Olmert, suspect that Mr Talansky and Mr Messer served as a conduit to transfer funds to various political and personal interests of Mr Olmert during the nine years he served as Jerusalem mayor.

Both Mr Talansky and Mr Messer have been under pressure to act as state witnesses, and the request to the court on Tuesday was in order to allow Mr Talansky to give testimony and return to the United States. The district court will give its ruling in the next few days. Meanwhile police have been worried for Mr Messer’s welfare and on Monday were urgently searching for him in Tel Aviv, until he was located walking on the Ayalon Freeway.

The case against Mr Olmert erupted last Thursday when it emerged that the police had asked Attorney-General Menahem Mazuz for his authorisation to conduct an “emergency” questioning of Mr Olmert in the next 48 hours.

This was the only detail the media was allowed to publish, aside from the fact that in addition to Mr Olmert, his long-time bureau chief Shula Zaken had also been questioned and put under house arrest. All other information was subject to a 30-day blanket gag order issued by the court on the police’s request.

A number of Israeli news organisations have tried to contest the order, but to no avail. At first, the police said that any publication would sabotage their investigations, but following revelations in American newspapers, they changed their tune, reasoning that it would not be fitting to publish the allegations before Remembrance Day and Independence Day. The gag order is expected to be rescinded today (Friday).

The gag order also prevented the Prime Minister’s Office from responding to the allegations and rumours. Mr Olmert had to make do with an announcement he read out at the Cabinet meeting on Sunday in which he said: “Since Wednesday, a wave of rumours has been going around the country, some malicious and vicious. I promise that when things will be clear, the suspicions will go away and the cloud will disperse.”

Mr Olmert’s office tried to project “business as usual”, the PM holding meetings with US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and taking part in all the Remembrance and Independence Day celebrations, but he cancelled scheduled interviews.

Officials in his office admitted to the JC that they had gone in to “siege mode”, cutting off all official contact with the media. A planned interview of one of Mr Olmert’s closest aides with the JC was also cancelled. “There is a huge balagan [mess] going on here right now,” one of the officials told the JC.

    Last updated: 3:50pm, May 14 2008