Olmert Needs to Step Aside for Israel's Sake, Defense Minister Says

By Julie Stahl | July 7, 2008 | 8:19 PM EDT

Jerusalem (CNSNews.com) - Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert should "disconnect himself from the day-to-day running of the government" as he deals with his personal legal problems, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said on Wednesday.

And if Olmert doesn't step aside, Barak indicated that his Labor Party "will act to set an agreed-upon date for early elections." The remark was widely interpreted as a hint that if Olmert doesn't step aside, the Labor Party, which Barak heads, will quit the government, forcing early elections. Labor is Olmert's largest coaltion partner in the government.)

Barack said that the Olmert's Kadima Party needed to do some "soul searching." He said he was not setting a time limit but that it had to happen "soon."

Barak spoke a day after an American businessman told an Israeli court that he had given Olmert tens of thousands of dollars in cash over the years.

Barak questioned how Olmert can deal with all the challenges facing Israel -- Hamas, Hezbollah, Syria, Iran, the kidnapped Israeli soldiers and the peace process -- and handle his personal affairs at the same time.

"I do not think the prime minister can run, in parallel, the government and deal with his own personal affairs," Barak said. "For the good of the state...the prime minister must detach himself from the daily management of the government. He can do so in a variety of ways...which will not be determined by us," Barak said at a short press conference.

Olmert's office refused to comment on Barak's call, but earlier in the day Olmert's strategic advisor Tal Zilberstein said in a radio interview that Olmert had no intention of leaving office now "nor at any stage while he is in the process of proving his innocence."

Olmert said earlier that he would step down if he was indicted, but so far that has not happened.

Israelis are closely following the story of Moshe Talansky, the American Jewish businessman who said he gave $150,000 in cash to Olmert over a period of some 14 years, since Olmert himself was first questioned by police over the affair earlier this month.

Olmert has been investigated four times by police since becoming prime minister. Many Israelis blame his poor decision making for Israel's inability to crush Hezbollah in Lebanon in the summer of 2006. Israel is widely perceived to have "lost" the brief war.

Talansky testified before a Tel Aviv court for eight hours on Tuesday, explaining how the prime minister had asked for campaign contributions, expense money and even personal loans -- including $25,000 to take his family on holiday in Italy.

Israeli lawmakers from across the political spectrum have accused Olmert of trying to shift attention away from his personal problems by announcing last week that Israel was conducting indirect peace talks with Syria, with Turkey serving as the intermediary.

Prof. Efraim Inbar, from the conservative BESA Center for Strategic Studies near Tel Aviv, said he believes that Israel is "inching toward early elections" in which rightwing Likud Party leader Binyamin Netanyahu is favored to win, according to opinion polls. (That prospect can't possibly please Barak, a former prime minister, and some Israelis think that's why he'd be reluctant to pull his Labor Paty out of the government.)

A Likud victory would likely put the brakes on the U.S.-backed Israeli-Palestinian peace process, since Netanyahu is opposed to "deal breakers," such as dividing Jerusalem.

In the meantime, it is more likely that if Olmert were forced to resign, his own Kadima Party would replace him with another leader, Inbar told Cybercast News Service.

Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni -- who heads Israel's negotiating team with the Palestinians -- is frequently mentioned as a likely successor to Olmert. If that were to happen, the government's foreign policy toward the Palestinians and Syria would likely remain the same, Inbar said.

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