JERUSALEM, (Reuters) – Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert responded with a business-as-usual approach on Thursday to a demand by his defence minister to step aside over corruption allegations.
After making clear through aides on Wednesday he was staying on, Olmert made no reference, at a welcoming ceremony for Denmark’s prime minister on Thursday, to Labour Party leader Ehud Barak’s call. “I intend to discuss with the visiting prime minister … the international effort to stop Iran’s nuclear (programme), the regional peace process, the war against terror and the strengthening of radical Islam in the Middle East and worldwide,” Olmert said, listing his usual diplomatic talking points.
Olmert plans a three-day visit to Washington next week for talks with U.S. President George W. Bush and to deliver a speech to the annual policy conference of a pro-Israel lobbying group.
Barak threatened on Wednesday to pursue an early election — political turmoil that could derail Israeli-Palestinian peace talks – after a U.S. businessman told an Israeli court how he had handed Olmert envelopes with thousands of dollars in cash.
Amid the political uncertainty, Attorney-General Menachem Mazuz convened prosecutors and police officers on Thursday to discuss the way forward in the investigation against Olmert.
Mazuz issued a statement after the meeting saying the investigation would be speeded up “in order to complete it as soon as possible”. He gave no precise timeframe for a decision on whether to indict the prime minister.
Olmert has ridden out similar storms in the past. He has pledged to resign if charged and denied any wrongdoing in accepting what he has described as above-board election campaign contributions.
Barak, a former prime minister whose party is Olmert’s main coalition partner, was hazy on what steps he might take, and when. He stopped short of making a move that would immediately bring down the government and trigger a snap election. Polls suggest the right-wing Likud under Benjamin Netanyahu would defeat Labour if a ballot, not due until 2010, were held now.
A cartoon in Israel’s most popular newspaper, Yedioth Ahronoth, illustrated what some commentators saw as Barak’s failure to take stronger action.
It showed Barak wearing bunny ears and holding a carrot, an allusion to Hebrew slang in which “rabbit” means “coward”.
The American Jewish businessman at the centre of the case, Morris Talansky, is due back in Israel in July, when he will be cross-examined by Olmert’s lawyers.
Chief prosecutor Moshe Lador said after Talansky testified on Tuesday that it was too early to tell if charges would be brought against Olmert.