Israeli Police Recommend Indicting Olmert

JERUSALEM – The Israeli police on Sunday recommended indicting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on charges including bribe-taking, fraud and breach of trust.

The recommendation, which followed a corruption investigation that unfolded over several months, has no legal weight of its own. The decision whether to charge the prime minister lies with the attorney general, Menachem Mazuz. It is likely to come in a few weeks, after Mr. Olmert has been granted a hearing. Mr. Olmert’s lawyers immediately issued a statement that the police recommendation had “no meaning.”

Mr. Olmert has repeatedly denied wrongdoing. Under intense public and political pressure, however, he pledged in July to resign as soon as his centrist Kadima Party chose a new leader. The party election is scheduled for next week, and a runoff, if required, would be on Sept. 25.

The police recommendation underscored Mr. Olmert’s standing as a lame duck and cast a thicker pall over the country’s political future and its diplomatic negotiations with the Palestinians and with Syria. Ofer Shelah of Maariv, a daily newspaper, wrote that it “will repeatedly remind us that in the weeks and maybe months ahead, Israel is without a government.”

Tzipi Livni, the foreign minister, is a leading candidate to replace Mr. Olmert. Another contender is Shaul Mofaz, a tough-talking former defense minister and army chief of staff.

Mr. Olmert is expected to stay on as a transitional prime minister until his successor forms a new governing coalition or national elections are held. That could take weeks or months.

The police recommendation involves two separate cases, both for episodes before Mr. Olmert became prime minister in early 2006. One case involves money that Mr. Olmert received, much of it as cash stuffed into envelopes, from Morris Talansky, a Long Island businessman, over more than a decade. The police said the evidence pointed to fraud, money-laundering and accepting bribes; bribery is the most serious charge Mr. Olmert could face.

Mr. Olmert has acknowledged receiving payments but said they were all legitimate donations for political campaigns. Yet Mr. Talansky testified in court here in May that some of the money was meant for Mr. Olmert’s personal use. The police say they have evidence that as a quid pro quo, Mr. Olmert tried to promote Mr. Talansky’s business interests, making introductions on the American’s behalf.

In November 2005, for example, Mr. Olmert, then Israel’s minister of trade and industry and vice prime minister, sent a letter to Sheldon G. Adelson, an American hotel and casino tycoon, asking him to consider using Mr. Talansky’s minibar company in his hotels. The letter, on official stationery, was introduced as evidence.

Mr. Talansky has denied deriving any benefit from his relationship with Mr. Olmert. In fact, Mr. Talansky told the court, Mr. Adelson slammed down the phone when he called.

In the other case, Mr. Olmert is suspected of fraudulently billing state and charitable agencies for the same flights and using the overpayments for family vacations.

Amir Dan, a media adviser to Mr. Olmert, predicted Saturday that the police would recommend an indictment “since they have to justify the fact that they brought down a prime minister in office.”

Mr. Olmert is not the first sitting Israeli prime minister to face such a recommendation. In April 1997, the police investigating influence-peddling in the Israeli government recommended that charges be brought against Benjamin Netanyahu, the prime minister at the time. Days later, the state prosecutors announced they lacked enough evidence to press charges.

The recommendation against Mr. Olmert was released to coincide with the main Sunday evening television news broadcasts, heightening its impact.

It followed a tumultuous day in the Israeli cabinet, which approved a hotly contested motion by the justice minister, Daniel Friedmann, to regulate – and curb – the Israeli Supreme Court’s powers of judicial review.

Mr. Friedmann’s bill has to go through several stages to become law. It goes next to Parliament’s Constitution, Law and Justice Committee. If the measure is enacted, it will for the first time anchor in law the Supreme Court’s authority to veto legislation. But it will also place strict limitations on that authority and give the 120-member legislature the power to overturn a judicial veto with a simple majority of 61 votes.

The cabinet was also to debate another widely disputed bill proposing early compensation for Jewish settlers who volunteer to evacuate their West Bank homes in areas designated as part of a Palestinian state. The ministers postponed that discussion, citing a lack of time.

Mr. Olmert said that “it should be clear to everyone” that decisions were required about relocating Israelis. It is appropriate, he said, “to begin thinking about these issues and to see how we can prepare for them properly.” Ms. Livni, who is also Israel’s chief negotiator with the Palestinians, said she opposed raising the issue until both sides had agreed on a permanent border.

Though Mr. Olmert has sought to project an atmosphere of business as usual, the scheduling of the two bills provoked widespread criticism, including from senior members of his party, and raised questions about the prime minister’s political mandate as his tenure draws to a close.

The conservative-leaning newspaper Israel Hayom, which is owned by Mr. Adelson, the casino magnate, attacked Mr. Olmert in Sunday’s issue. Dan Margalit, a columnist, wrote that the prime minister “has chosen hyperactivity as a means of dulling the impression of the police recommendations.”

September 8, 2008

Source: The New York Times

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