If former justice minister Haim Ramon's conviction is quashed, he will be the leading candidate to replace under-fire Finance Minister Avraham Hirchson, Army Radio quoted senior government sources as saying on Friday. Nevertheless, the sources stressed that at present, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert had no intention of removing Hirchson despite the criminal investigation underway against him. In addition, sources close to Hirchson said that the justice minister had no intention of quitting. "If a prime minister who is suspected of bribery can continue to serve in his position why must a senior minister put his head in the guillotine?" the sources were quoted as saying. Senior Finance Ministry officials were concerned that the expected reforms in the Finance Ministry would be frozen in the wake of the serious allegation against Hirchson, Army Radio reported. Meanwhile, sources close to the investigation of Hirchson's alleged embezzlement said that at present there was no basis for investigating Olmert. The sources said that the prime minister was in no way connected with the case. Police suspicions center on Hirchson's tenure as head of the National Labor Federation. From Thursday's investigation of Ovadia Cohen, the former head of Nili, an organization that operated educational institutions under the umbrella of the workers' union, it emerged that Hirchson received dollar-filled envelopes on the eve of a visit abroad in addition to envelopes containing tens of thousands of shekels that had already been delivered directly to his home. Another suspect in the investigation said that senior officials in the National Labor Federation got envelopes before Jewish holidays containing cash as credit for the holiday. David Cohen, who worked for Nili, and Shlomo Aroash, who was an envoy for the National Labor Federation, said in their testimonies that they had entered the room of Hirchson's Filipino worker and identified her as one of the people who had received cash-filled envelopes for the finance minister. Also on Thursday, Kadima members urged the public not to prejudge the fraud allegations against Hirchson, even though they admitted that the scandal itself is harmful to the party. "It is a difficult period," Environment Minister Gideon Ezra told The Jerusalem Post. "We all wish that it would be as if these things had not happened."
Hirchson may turn state witness
MK Ronit Tirosh said Hirchson should step aside temporarily so that he could focus on defending himself.
Labor MK Ami Ayalon joined in that call, even though he, like Tirosh, said he hoped Hirchson would be found innocent. "Still, a finance minister cannot continue to operate when there are such heavy clouds of suspicion hovering over him. It harms the public's trust in the government."
Rumors circulated on Thursday that Olmert wanted Hirchson to decide on his own to step down and that Interior Minister Roni Bar-On could be called in to replace him. A party spokesman dismissed this.
The Prime Minister's Office said only that the matter "is under investigation. We are awaiting its conclusions."
Kadima MK Otniel Schneller said that unless the police find Hirchson had broken the law, the minister should stay in his post. By law he is allowed to remain in office, said Schneller. It is important to abide by the legal system and not give in to populist sentiment, the MK added. But he said the incident had left him with a "bad feeling" and a sense of "frustration."
"I am sad because Hirchson is a good finance minister and has scored many economic achievements," Schneller said. He added that the police should have kept silent about the investigation until its conclusion.
The police investigation against Hirchson this week is the latest probe into members of a party that has suffered a number of legal woes.
MK Tzahi Hanegbi is in court on charges of fraud, breach of trust, election bribery, providing false testimony and lying under oath. In February, former Ramon was found guilty of forcibly kissing a 20-year-old female soldier without her consent. The Justice Ministry has probed corruption charges against Olmert, but has not concluded whether a criminal investigation is warranted. To top it off, it's anticipated that the Winograd Committee's report will have negative conclusions on Olmert's decisions with respect to the second war in Lebanon.
Still, party members said they believed Kadima would survive all these setbacks.
Schneller said he thought the adversities had strengthened the party, creating a sense of unity among its members.
Tirosh said the party was larger then any one person. Kadima was created to represent a centrist ideology, Tirosh said.
She added that there were many people in the party who were straight and honest and over whom there were no corruption clouds. This honest political environment would prevail, she said.