Attorney-General Menahem Mazuz said Thursday he will not allow Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to serve as acting finance minister for more than "a limited amount of time." Olmert must appoint a replacement for finance minister Avraham Hirchson, who suspended himself this week, he said. Police questioned Hirchson intensively at the beginning of the week regarding allegations he embezzled large sums of money from the National Union of Workers and two of its subsidiary organizations.
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Mazuz made his statement in response to letters from the watchdog organizations Ometz and the Legal Forum for the Land of Israel. They had protested that Olmert should not be in charge of the Treasury, since he is under police investigation in a matter in which Treasury officials were serving as witnesses.
The organizations were referring to the investigation into the Bank Leumi tender affair. According to the allegations, Olmert, while serving as finance minister in the government of prime minister Ariel Sharon, intervened in the sale of the core ownership of Bank Leumi on behalf of Frank Lowy and S. Daniel Abraham, two businessmen who were also his friends.
Neither of the organizations was satisfied with Mazuz's statement.
The Legal Forum for the Land of Israel announced that it would petition the High Court of Justice if Olmert did not appoint a replacement for Hirchson within a week. Ometz demanded that Mazuz set a deadline for Olmert to hand over the Finance portfolio.
In his letter to the organizations, Mazuz's aide, Ran Nizri, wrote that "the attorney-general is of the opinion that there is a legal problem in the fact that the prime minister is serving as acting finance minister, and that is primarily because of the criminal investigation being conducted against him regarding his involvement in the privatization of Bank Leumi when he was serving as finance minister, and because in serving as acting finance minister [now], he is the direct superior of various officials in the Finance Ministry from whom police are taking testimony in connection with the investigation."
But Mazuz added that Hirchson only informed Olmert that he was temporarily suspending himself on Sunday morning, before the cabinet meeting. Considering that the appointment of another minister "to such a crucial and sensitive position involves, in the natural course of events, various considerations and requires time, the attorney-general did not feel it was right to prevent the prime minister from serving temporarily and for a limited amount of time as acting finance minister until he was ready to appoint another minister," Nizri wrote.
As the watchdog organizations pointed out, Mazuz left his opinion open to interpretation of what constituted a "limited amount of time."
If Olmert does not appoint a replacement within the next week, the High Court of Justice may have to decide how long Olmert has. Hirchson can only suspend himself for three months. If he does not return to his post by then, Olmert will have to appoint a permanent replacement.
In response to Mazuz's ruling, Olmert said he had consulted with Mazuz ahead of taking the portfolio. He said he had told Mazuz he would only hold the portfolio for a few weeks and the attorney-general had said that would not be a problem.
The leading candidate for the job is reportedly former justice minister Haim Ramon. But it is possible that Olmert will decide to promote someone else from Kadima, such as Construction and Housing Minister Meir Sheetrit.
Labor MK Avishay Braverman's name has also been mentioned in connection with the job if his ally, MK Ami Ayalon, is elected Labor leader.
"I entered politics to be in the leadership," Braverman said Thursday. "I am qualified to lead the economy and I expect to be a senior minister in the economic realm."
One man who is not likely to become finance minister is Defense Minister Amir Peretz. Peretz issued a statement Thursday expressing his interest in the post, but Olmert's associates said there was no chance of that happening.
Meanwhile, a poll broadcast on Israel Radio on Thursday found that in a race among the five Labor leadership candidates, Ayalon would beat former prime minister Ehud Barak 30 percent to 29% and would beat him in a run-off 47%-38%.
The poll found that in a runoff, 40% of Peretz's backers would shift their support to Ayalon and 33% to Barak. Some 64% of MK Ophir Paz-Pines's supporters would shift to Ayalon and 31% to Barak.
Among MK Danny Yatom's voters, 71% would back Ayalon and 12% Barak.
Ayalon on Thursday accused Olmert of interfering in the Labor race on Barak's behalf.
"The hints out of the Prime Minister's Office that Olmert has a preferred candidate for Labor chairman are multiplying," he told supporters at a rally in Kibbutz Na'an. "Labor is a democratic party; Olmert will not select Labor's chairman. Labor will sit in any coalition that advances its agenda, but will not be anyone's fig leaf."