Israeli Housing Minister Abraham Ofer, whose name has been mentioned in connection with a police investigation into corruption, committed suicide today, Israeli state television said.
The death of Ofer, 54, one of the leaders of Israel's ruling Labor Party, is expected to figure in the forthcoming general elections scheduled for May and could have considerable influence on the political fortunes of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.
Ofer is said to have made several appeals to Rabin during the last few days, asking for help in clearing his name. Observers believe that Rabin, after consulting with several Cabinet ministers, refused to help Ofer.
The housing minister's pleas reportedly were discussed at a meeting at Rabin's private residence in Tel Aviv Saturday morning. The participants, who included Minister of Justice Haim Zadok, Minister of Police Shlomo Hillel and the Israeli attorney general, refused to discuss the subject of the meeting.Ofer reportedly made another appeal when he met with Rabin yesterday after the weekly Cabinet meeting.
In Rabin's Cabinet, the Polish-born Ofer was one of the doves on Israeli policy toward the Arabs. He was outspoken in his opposition to Israeli settlements in the occupied territories.
Ofer's body was found in his car in a Tel Aviv suburb. Sources said he died of gunshot wounds. The state television broadcast the text of what it said was a suicide note found beside the body.
The television broadcast quoted the note as saying, "For weeks and months I have been tortured. My blood is being spilled. Charges are being fabricated against me. This time they did not even spare members of my family. I have no doubt that the truth will come to light and it will be made clear that I did not embezzle and did not steal and that all were libels and slanders. But I have no strength for this any more."
In the note, Ofer thanked those who stood by him and asked his wife, his sons and daughters-in-law for forgiveness, the broadcast said.
Observers here believed that Ofer was bitterly disappointed by his party's decision not to put him in charge of the election campaign, a role he filled during the last general elections in 1973. According to several reports, the Labor Party's veteran leader Golda Meir insisted that the post of campaign manager should go to the minister of commerce and industry, Haim Bar-Lev.
Rumors involving Ofer began to spread three months ago when a criminal investigation began into the activities of Asher Yadlin, a close friend and associate of Ofer. Yadlin, who had been nominated by the government to become governor of the Bank of Israel, the country's central bank, has since been arrested and charged with brbibery and corruption.
The allegations against Ofer were made in an official complaint by Yigal Laviv, a freelance journalist who was the first to bring charges against Yadlin. Israeli police have never confirmed that Laviv's document, or other complaints brought against Ofer, contained enough evidence to start a full-scale investigation against the minister of housing. They apparently were also not ready to drop the case.
Most of the allegations against Ofer involve the period before he joined the Rabin government in 1974, when he was a general manager of Shikun Ovdim, a housing company owned by the Histadrut, Israel's labor federation.
According to rumors, Ofer took bribes in land acquisitions deals from Arabs north of Jerusalem, showed favoritism to members of his family in the sale of apartments and in obtaining mortgages at preferred terms, and bribedjournalists and others from whom he wanted favors.
Last week in Parliament, Ehud Olmert, a member of Likud, the right-wing opposition bloc, charged that he had heard "from highly placed sources in the police" that there was enough evidence to start a full-scale investigation of the allegations.
Ofer, in defending himself on the floor, charged bitterly that the police "had not appointed Olmert as its spokesman."
The news of Ofer's death was relayed to Rabin shortly after 6 p.m. today. The prime minister immediately began consultations with several Cabinet ministers. A scheduled meeting between Rabin and Israel's president, Ephraim Katzir, in which Katzir was expected to instruct Rabin to form a new government, was postponed until Tuesday.
The government announced that Ofer will be given a state funeral.