JERUSALEM, (Reuters) – Defence Minister Ehud Barak called a surprise news conference on Wednesday and Israeli Army Radio said he would demand Prime Minister Ehud Olmert step aside after damaging testimony in a corruption case.
The unsourced radio report said Barak would threaten to take immediate action to force an early election if Olmert did not do so.
Barak’s Labour Party, Olmert’s biggest partner in a fragile ruling coalition, could bring down the government if it walked out. A new election would disrupt Israel’s peace talks with the Palestinians and its indirect negotiations with Syria. “Either Olmert suspends himself or the Labour Party must leave the government,” senior Labour legislator Danny Yatom said before Barak’s news conference, scheduled for 1:30 p.m. (1030 GMT).
U.S. businessman Morris Talansky testified on Tuesday that he gave Olmert $150,000 in cash-stuffed envelopes, including personal loans that were never repaid, over a 15-year period before the veteran politician became Israel’s leader.
Israeli media reports said Barak, who did not make good on a threat to end his political partnership with Olmert after the costly 2006 Lebanon war, would say the prime minister could not do his job properly while under the current cloud of scandal.
Even in a country where many assume corruption at the top is rampant, the image painted in court of a politician with a penchant for expensive cigars and for cash over cheques offered by the American Jewish fundraiser was extraordinary.
Olmert, whose defence attorneys will cross-examine Talansky only in July, has acknowledged receiving money from the New York-based businessman but said the funds were legal election campaign contributions.
Denying any wrongdoing, he has said he would resign if indicted.
Tal Silberstein, an Olmert adviser, told Israeli Army Radio the prime minister had no intention of stepping aside now. “I can tell you, based on a recent conversation with him, that he has no intention of announcing that he is taking a leave of absence or declaring anything at this stage — not as long as he is trying to prove his innocence,” Silberstein said.
Should Olmert, 62, step aside temporarily while prosecutors pursue the corruption case against him, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, as his deputy, would likely take over, for an interim period of 100 days.
If Olmert quits outright, President Shimon Peres, under Israeli law, could name a replacement after consultation with leaders of parliamentary parties.
The frontrunner would likely be Livni, Israel’s chief delegate to peace talks with the Palestinians which the United States hopes can result in a statehood agreement by the end of the year.
Israel Radio painted another scenario, reporting that Barak was considering the formation of an emergency government with Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing opposition Likud party that would leave out Olmert’s centrist Kadima party.
Olmert, twice questioned by police in the past few weeks, has said he took cash from Talansky for two successful campaigns for mayor of Jerusalem in 1993 and 1998, a failed bid to lead Likud in 1999 and a further internal Likud election in 2002.
A judicial source said the sums involved totalled hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Talansky, 75, told the Jerusalem District Court that he had helped Olmert because he regarded the former Jerusalem mayor as “a man who could accomplish a great deal” for Israel.
A poll in the Haaretz newspaper said that 70 percent of the Israeli public did not believe that Olmert was telling the truth about using the money only for political campaigns.