Olmert returns to face probes

Prime minister is focus of three separate Justice Ministry investigations.

olmert 298.88 (photo credit: AP)
olmert 298.88
(photo credit: AP)
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert returns this weekend from his state visit to China at the center of three separate Justice Ministry investigations, as the highest levels of the Israeli establishment are awash in a series of embarrassing corruption scandals. A stream of on-again, off-again allegations involving the premier burst out into the open this week, and followed him on his Far East trip, after Channel 10 TV reported that Attorney-General Menachem Mazuz has decided in principle to order police to investigate allegations against him upon his return. Olmert has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing in the affairs and reiterated in China that his "hands are clean" of any criminal wrongdoing. The Justice Ministry has declined comment on the cases. The investigations include allegations that Olmert gave favors to business associates in the 2005 privatization of the country's second-largest bank, Bank Leumi, alleged favoritism toward a former law partner, and his role in alleged political appointments to a small-business agency. The first case deals with suspicions that as finance minister Olmert tried to help his friends acquire a controlling interest in Bank Leumi during the sell-off of the government stake. Bank of Israel Governor Stanley Fischer has said that the sale of the bank was "solely professional." The allegations, which were first raised in a report last year by State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss reportedly concerned two businessmen with ties to Olmert, Frank Lowy and Daniel Abraham, whose bids for the bank eventually failed. The second case involves favors Olmert allegedly provided to his former law partner, Uri Messer, while serving as industry and trade minister. The third and final case involving the premier, which is reportedly the weakest of the three, involves political appointments the premier allegedly made in the ministry's Small Business Authority during his tenure there, an affair first brought to light by Lindenstrauss, who has repeatedly sparred with the prime minister in the past. Despite an array of previous allegations, Olmert has never been charged with any criminal wrongdoing. Three previous prime ministers have faced long criminal investigations which were eventually closed without any charges being filed. But the Olmert investigation comes as he is already fighting low approval ratings over his leadership role stemming from last year's war in Lebanon, and as Israel is awash in a sea of dizzying high-profile scandals involving Israeli leaders. Later this month, the attorney-general in expected to press charges against President Moshe Katsav following accusations of rape, a Tel Aviv court is due to hand down its ruling in the trial of Justice Minister Haim Ramon suspected of forcibly kissing a young woman, and police are expected to question Finance Minister Avraham Hirchson about his suspected involvement in a multimillion dollar embezzlement scam in 2003 when he headed a workers' union. Amidst all the scandals, a survey released this week found that nearly 85 percent of the Israeli public thinks that the country's leadership is corrupt, while more than half said that all Israeli political party leaders are tainted by corruption.