Olmert in crisis


Kadimah inner circle to discuss future

The pressure on Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to leave office greatly intensified this week after Defence Minister Ehud Barak demanded that he resign or suspend himself from the premiership until the investigation into his alleged bribe-taking was over.

Olmert at the Knesset this week

Senior ministers of Mr Olmert’s ruling Kadimah Party will meet over the weekend to discuss how the party should respond to the Labour leader’s demand, issued at a press conference on Wednesday, a day after the preliminary testimony of businessman Morris Talansky in the Jerusalem District Court.

Mr Talansky, the Long Island fundraiser who is a central witness in the corruption investigation against Mr Olmert, gave evidence despite there not being yet an indictment, because he had asked to be allowed to go to his home in the US.

In a seven-hour long appearance before the court, Mr Talansky chronicled 15 years of friendship with the man he knew first as Health Minister, then Mayor of Jerusalem, Trade and then Treasury Minister and finally Prime Minister.

During this time, Mr Talansky told the court, he gave Mr Olmert over $150,000 (£75,000) cash in envelopes. A large part of this money went to finance Mr Olmert’s political campaigns, in Likud primaries, but also to pay for a holiday in Italy for Mr Olmert and his wife, plane-ticket upgrades to first-class, and a three-day stay at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Washington.

Mr Talansky also told how Uri Messer, Mr Olmert’s former lawyer and law-firm partner, asked him for a loan of $300,000 (£150,000) to cover a deficit in the account of one of Mr Olmert’s campaigns.

Mr Messer, another central figure in the investigation, has been questioned repeatedly and is expected to turn state’s witness.

Mr Talansky’s emotional testimony before an open court made the allegations come to life for Israelis.

He insisted that there was no element of bribery in his actions, and aside from trying to put him in contact with Jewish businessmen, Mr Olmert did nothing in return for the money.

“I always admired Ehud Olmert,” he told the court. “He was well-spoken and intelligent, they called him ‘the prince of the Likud.’ I believed he could save the people of Israel, I really loved the man.”

Police and the Attorney-General’s office are convinced Mr Talansky’s testimony, along with the other witnesses and evidence, will be sufficient to indict Mr Olmert within a few months

Mr Barak is not prepared to wait that long. On Wednesday, he announced at a press conference that “in light of the situation and the challenges facing the country — Hamas, Hizbollah, Syria, Iran, captured soldiers — I don’t think the Prime Minister can run the country and at the same time take care of his own personal issues. Therefore, for the good of the country and proper norms, the Prime Minister must cut himself off from the day-to-day running of the government soon.”

Mr Barak called on the leaders of Kadima to undertake “a reckoning” and appoint a new leader that Labour could do business with.

Sources in Mr Olmert’s office said that he had no plans to resign unless an indictment against him were served. But senior ministers in the party have been meeting since to try to work out a joint strategy. Some of the meetings took place in the office of Knesset Speaker Dalya Itzik, who urged colleagues not to attack Mr Olmert openly.

The leading contender to replace Mr Olmert is his deputy, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni. At an event in Jerusalem on Wednesday, she said that “the nation has a vision and values, which obligate its citizens and also its leaders”.

If Mr Olmert resigns, primaries in Kadima will take place for a new leader. Transport Minister Shaul Mofaz, Interior Minister Meir Sheetrit and Internal Security Minister Avi Dichter will also be in the running.

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