Israel's Olmert Pressured to Step Down

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, top, called on Premier Ehud Olmert to step aside or face a new vote. Barak's Labor Party is allied with Olmert's Kadima party.
Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, top, called on Premier Ehud Olmert to step aside or face a new vote. Barak's Labor Party is allied with Olmert's Kadima party. (By Dan Balilty -- Associated Press)
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By Griff Witte
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, May 29, 2008

JERUSALEM, May 28 -- Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's chances of hanging on to power amid a burgeoning corruption probe diminished Wednesday after the leader of his main coalition partner demanded he either step aside or face new elections.

The call by Ehud Barak, Israel's defense minister and head of the Labor Party, is an ominous sign for Olmert as he attempts to weather allegations that he took cash-filled envelopes from an American businessman and used some of the money on fancy trips, luxury hotels and fine cigars.

The scandal, which sprang up less than a month ago, could end Olmert's beleaguered tenure as prime minister just over halfway through his four-year term. His premature departure could also short-circuit the Bush administration's stated goal of forging peace between Israel and the Palestinians by the end of the year.

Barak has the power to topple Olmert's fragile coalition government because without Labor's support, Olmert does not have a majority in the 120-seat Knesset, Israel's parliament. The result of Labor's withdrawal could be early elections.

Citing security threats from Iran and the armed Islamist movements Hamas and Hezbollah, Barak indicated that Olmert's legal problems had become a distraction from his duty to safeguard the country.

"I do not think that the prime minister can simultaneously manage the government and handle his personal issues," Barak said at a hastily convened news conference. "Therefore, out of consideration for the best interests of the country, and the accepted norms, I believe that the prime minister must detach himself from the day-to-day leadership of the government."

Barak, a former prime minister who aspires to return to the job, said Olmert could step aside temporarily or permanently. He called on Olmert's centrist Kadima party to "do some soul-searching," the implication being that it should try to force the prime minister's hand.

If Kadima failed to act "as soon as possible," he said, Labor would pull its support. Barak did not set a specific deadline. The next general elections in Israel are scheduled for 2010.

Barak's announcement came just a day after the American businessman, Morris Talansky, told an Israeli court that he gave Olmert $150,000 over a nearly 15-year period. Talansky said he did not receive anything in return for the donations. While much of the money was intended for political purposes, Talansky said he suspected some had gone to fund Olmert's lavish tastes.

Olmert, 62, did not comment Wednesday on Barak's demand, nor has he spoken publicly about Talansky's testimony. The prime minister has denied any wrongdoing, though he has said he would resign if indicted.

Olmert, elected in 2006 after Ariel Sharon was incapacitated by a stroke, has endured calls for his ouster in the past, particularly in the aftermath of the Second Lebanon War. At the time, Barak was among those urging Olmert to go.

"The prime minister is still the prime minister. Let's give him time, without any pressure, to give his version of events," said Yoel Hasson, a member of parliament from Olmert's Kadima party.

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