Pressure mounts on Olmert to resign

ISRAEL’S popular foreign minister yesterday said the ruling party must prepare to replace Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, raising pressure on him to step down amid a growing corruption investigation.

Calls for Olmert’s resignation grew this week after the key witness in the case, US businessman Morris Talansky, described handing tens of thousands of dollars to Olmert, in part to finance the Israeli politician’s expensive tastes.

Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni was the first senior member of Olmert’s own Kadima Party to question his fitness to stay in office.

“I think the reality has changed since yesterday and Kadima has to make decisions,” Livni told reporters in Jerusalem. “I suspect that Kadima needs to start right away acting for every eventuality, including elections.”

Livni said she favoured holding a party primary to give the public a say in choosing a leader.

“In this way, we can operate to restore the trust in Kadima,” she said, without mentioning Ehud Olmert by name.

Opinion polls show Livni to be the country’s most popular politician, and she would stand a good chance of winning a nationwide party primary. But she faces many rivals among the party’s leadership, and there is no guarantee she would win a contest decided in a smaller forum.

On Wednesday, Defence Minister Ehud Barak called on Olmert to step aside, pledging to pull his Labour Party, a key coalition partner, out of the government and force elections if the Israeli leader didn’t comply.

“The die has been cast,” Barak told a meeting of his Labour Party in Tel Aviv.

“We should prepare for elections. In my estimation we are going to elections, it could be before the end of this year,” he said.

Olmert has denied wrongdoing and said he would resign only if he is indicted. He has not commented publicly about Talansky’s testimony and tried to maintain a business-as-usual appearance.

Olmert has made clear through aides that he has no intention of stepping down. He plans a three-day visit to Washington next week for talks with US President George W Bush and a speech to the annual policy conference of a pro-Israel lobbying group.

Olmert has weathered a string of scandals since he took office two years ago. His lawyers are set to cross-examine Talansky on July 17.

He could still hang on to power. With hardline opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu expected to do well in the next election, both Livni and Barak could be reluctant to push harder to force new elections.

In court on Tuesday, Talansky said he gave Olmert $150,000 of his own money over the years, in addition to unspecified sums from other donors. Olmert insisted on getting the money in cash, and used it to help finance his penchant for high-living, Talansky told the court.

The outcome of this latest political crisis could have a profound effect on the fate of Israel’s peacemaking with the Palestinians, and on talks with Syria, recently relaunched after breaking down eight years ago.


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