By Griff Witte
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, July 18, 2008
JERUSALEM, July 17 -- Attorneys for Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert sought Thursday to poke holes in the testimony of a New York businessman at the center of a probe that threatens to bring down Olmert's government.
In a full day of cross-examination, the lawyers repeatedly tried to undermine Morris Talansky's credibility by pointing to inconsistencies in his statements.
Talansky, 75, was adamant that his testimony has been truthful.
"I never gave a false answer," he said.
Talansky has said he gave Olmert more than $150,000 over a nearly 15-year period, much of it in the form of cash stuffed into envelopes. He has also said that while the money was intended to help fund Olmert's political campaigns, he believes that much of it went to support the Israeli politician's lavish lifestyle, including a family vacation to Italy, fine cigars and a three-night stay at the Ritz-Carlton hotel in Washington.
That allegation is now being investigated alongside evidence that Olmert may have bilked various charities of more than $100,000 by billing multiple organizations for the same flights and hotel stays. Among the alleged victims of the scam are the Holocaust memorial authority Yad Vashem, a group that supports Israeli soldiers and another that helps mentally disabled children.
Olmert has insisted that he has done nothing wrong and that his innocence will be proved as the investigation proceeds. Most legal analysts view Talansky's cross-examination, which is expected to extend well into next week, as the best chance Olmert has left to exonerate himself.
The prime minister's legal strategy appears to rest on demonstrating that Talansky is untrustworthy and showing that Olmert's behavior was routine for Israeli politicians.
Talansky appeared nervous during the questioning Thursday, fiddling with a plastic cup and drumming his fingers on the table, and acknowledged that he may have been off with some of his dates. But his attorneys said afterward they did not believe Olmert's attorneys had exposed any serious flaws in his story.
Talansky has said that he gave Olmert money during his tenure as mayor of Jerusalem and trade minister out of personal admiration and that he did not ask for or receive any favors. He acknowledged feeling "violated" when he learned that Olmert had apparently spent the donations on luxuries rather than campaigning but denied he was angry with the prime minister.
Olmert, who has been in office for 2 1/2 years, has said he will resign if he is indicted. However, his rivals are already pushing for him to step aside. His centrist Kadima party is due to hold internal primaries in mid-September. Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni is expected to be a candidate, but Olmert has not yet said whether he will run.