Israel was abuzz with speculation yesterday after the country’s defense minister warned he would force early elections if Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert does not resign over graft allegations.
“What does all this mean? Very simple: Elections in November. Why? Because the prime minister does not intend to take leave, resign or declare incapacitation,” the mass-circulation Yediot Aharonot newspaper said in an editorial reflecting a widespread view.
Israeli Defense Minister and Labor Party leader Ehud Barak held a news conference on Wednesday to demand the prime minister resign over allegations he illegally received large amounts of cash from a US financier for his electoral campaigns and possibly for personal use.
Olmert, whose term ends in November 2010, said he had no intention of quitting, although an opinion poll yesterday found that 70 percent of people surveyed thought he should go.
“I am going to continue to exercise my functions,” the embattled prime minister said on Wednesday.
“Some people think that each time an investigation is launched, it has to lead to a resignation. But I don’t share that opinion — and I am not going to give up,” Olmert said.
Olmert, 62, has denied any wrongdoing over the allegations that have been simmering since police first questioned him in the affair on May 2, although he has admitted receiving campaign donations.
But support for Olmert appeared to be waning rapidly even within his centrist Kadima Party.
Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, who is believed to be first in line to replace Olmert if he resigns, has made oblique references to the damage done by the allegations.
“Israel must defend itself for its physical survival but must also defend its moral values,” she said. “The state must have a vision and values that apply to itself and the citizens.”
Barak, himself a former prime minister, said on Wednesday that unless Kadima acts to form a new government, with Labor’s support, “we will work to decide on a new agreed early date for elections.”
Without the support of Labor’s 17 members of parliament, Olmert’s coalition government would lose its parliamentary majority in the 120-member Knesset.
Barak dropped the political bombshell one day after Jewish-American financier Morris Talansky testified before a Jerusalem court that he had given Olmert vast amounts of cash.
Talansky said he had given Olmert at least US$150,000 in the 14 years before he became prime minister in 2006.
Israeli Housing Minister Zeev Boim, who is considered very close to Olmert, denounced what he called “a settling of scores,” but added: “One must admit the Talansky’s testimony caused great embarrassment.”
Media said that even Olmert’s closest aides were pressing him to quit.
“The people closest to him are telling him: ‘Ehud, for your self-respect, get up and go,’” Yediot Aharonot said.
“When a prime minister has such problems, his attention is elsewhere,” said political analyst Efraim Inbar of Bar Ilan university.
Experts said it would be difficult for Olmert to focus on peace talks with the Palestinians and indirect negotiations with Syria while fighting for his own political survival.
Opposition lawmakers have also claimed that the scandal-tainted prime minister lacks the moral authority to lead peace efforts that could shape the future of the Middle East.
And more than two-thirds of Israelis believe the premier must go.
Seventy percent believe Olmert should resign against 17 percent who do not think he should step down, a survey of 500 people published by the Israel Hayom daily showed.
Olmert, who became prime minister in 2006, faces three more police inquiries into suspected corruption involving potential conflicts of interest, fraudulent property transactions, and abuse of power linked to political appointments.