Israel’s defense minister yesterday issued a tough ultimatum to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, saying he would use his considerable power to topple the coalition government if the Israeli leader does not step aside to face corruption allegations.
The comments by Ehud Barak increased the growing pressure on Olmert to resign in the wake of a US businessman’s court testimony that painted Olmert as a money-hungry politician with a love for luxury. It also cast doubt on Israel’s efforts to reach peace with Syria and Palestinians.
Olmert has denied any wrongdoing and said he would resign only if he is indicted.
At a news conference, Barak said that in light of the criminal investigation, he did not think Olmert could focus on peace efforts and Israel’s security needs.
“I don’t think the prime minister can at the same time lead the government and handle his own affairs. Therefore, acting out of concern for the good of the country ... I believe the prime minister must disconnect himself from the day-to-day running of the government,” he said.
Barak said Olmert could suspend himself, resign or even go on vacation. He promised to cooperate with a new leader from Olmert’s Kadima Party, but vowed to force new elections if Olmert doesn’t step aside.
“If Kadima doesn’t act and this parliament doesn’t see another government that is to our liking, we will act to set an agreed-upon date for early elections,” he said.
He said the date would be “soon.”
Although Barak stopped short of setting a firm deadline, his comments made it extremely difficult for Olmert to stay in power.
If Labor withdraws from the coalition, Olmert would lose his parliamentary majority and the country would be forced to hold new elections.
Israel’s popular foreign minister, Tzipi Livni, would become caretaker prime minister if Olmert stepped down. The party could then try to form a new government, and if that effort failed elections would likely ensue.
Livni and other Kadima leaders have remained silent since Tuesday’s damaging court testimony, although one junior Kadima lawmaker, Amira Dotan, urged Olmert to resign. Several ministers were reportedly positioning themselves to replace Olmert.
Israeli prosecutors are investigating tens of thousands of dollars in donations collected by Olmert before becoming prime minister in 2006. They suspect he may have violated campaign finance laws or accepted bribes.
On Tuesday, the key witness in the case, US businessman Morris Talansky, testified that he personally gave Olmert US$150,000 over 15 years, often in cash-stuffed envelopes.