May 29, 2008 / 11:05 AM / 10 years ago

Pressure grows on Olmert to step aside

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israel’s foreign minister deepened the uncertainty over Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s ability to survive a corruption scandal by saying on Thursday their party had to prepare for a possible early election.

Olmert has responded with a business-as-usual approach to a demand by Defense Minister Ehud Barak that he step aside.

But the comments by Olmert’s deputy, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, and other members of their centrist Kadima party could increase pressure on the prime minister to go.

Livni, Israel’s chief negotiator with the Palestinians, said Kadima should “take decisions” and start preparing for “any scenario”, including an early general election and an internal leadership vote.

Widely regarded as a top candidate to replace Olmert, Livni did not call for Olmert to step down but said “values and norms” must be upheld in Israeli politics.

Addressing members of his left-leaning Labor faction, Barak said he would force the issue if Olmert failed to act.

“The prime minister has to make decisions. Factions have to make decisions, and if they don‘t, we will make the decisions for them,” said Barak, whose party is Olmert’s largest coalition partner.

Olmert has made clear through aides that he has no intention of stepping down. At a welcoming ceremony for Denmark’s prime minister on Thursday, Olmert made no reference to Barak’s call to go on leave or quit.

“I intend to discuss with the visiting prime minister ... the international effort to stop Iran’s nuclear (program), the regional peace process, the war against terror and the strengthening of radical Islam in the Middle East and worldwide,” Olmert said, hitting his usual talking points.

Olmert plans a three-day visit to Washington next week for talks with President George W. Bush and a speech to the annual policy conference of a pro-Israel lobbying group.

Israel's Defence Minister Ehud Barak addresses the media during a news conference at the parliament in Jerusalem May 28, 2008. REUTERS/Baz Ratner

POLITICAL TURMOIL

Barak threatened on Wednesday to pursue an early election, which would trigger political turmoil that could derail Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, after a U.S. businessman told an Israeli court he had handed Olmert envelopes with thousands of dollars in cash.

Attorney-General Menachem Mazuz convened prosecutors and police officers on Thursday to discuss the way forward in the investigation against Olmert.

Mazuz issued a statement after the meeting saying the investigation would be speeded up “in order to complete it as soon as possible”. He gave no precise timeframe for a decision on whether to indict the prime minister.

U.S. businessman Morris Talansky (R) takes the witness stand to give a preliminary testimony at the Jerusalem district court May 27, 2008. REUTERS/Uriel Sinai/Pool

Olmert has ridden out similar storms in the past. He has pledged to resign if charged and denied any wrongdoing in accepting what he has described as above-board election campaign contributions.

Barak, a former prime minister, has been hazy on what steps he might take, and when.

He stopped short of making a move that would immediately bring down the government and trigger a snap election. Polls suggest the right-wing Likud under Benjamin Netanyahu would defeat Labor if a vote, not due until 2010, were held now.

A top Likud lawmaker, former foreign minister Silvan Shalom, predicted an election would be held in November.

A cartoon in Israel’s most popular newspaper, Yedioth Ahronoth, illustrated what some commentators saw as Barak’s failure to take stronger action.

It showed Barak wearing bunny ears and holding a carrot, an allusion to Hebrew slang in which “rabbit” means “coward”.

The American Jewish businessman at the centre of the case, Morris Talansky, is due back in Israel in July when he will be cross-examined by Olmert’s lawyers.

Chief prosecutor Moshe Lador said after Talansky testified on Tuesday it was too early to tell if charges would be brought against Olmert.

Additional reporting by Avida Landau and Ari Rabinovitch; editing by Robert Woodward

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