Olmert Faces Probe of Apt. Deal

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Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, already reeling from criticism over his handling of last summer's botched war in Lebanon, took another heavy blow on Monday with the announcement that he faces a criminal probe for alleged bribery in a property deal.

According to charges made public by the office of Israel's crusading Attorney General Menachem Mazuz, Olmert is accused of buying a heavily discounted Jerusalem apartment, at $320,000 below its $1.6 million market value, from a friend in the real estate business in return for granting illegal building permits. The Prime Minister's office said the investigation was "unnecessary" but that Olmert nevertheless would be willing to cooperate with police questioning. Privately, his staff expressed confidence that the case was too "full of holes" for Olmert to be charged.

Olmert is not unused to being the subject of legal probes. A criminal investigation was launched earlier this year into his role in the sale of Bank Leumi when he was still finance minister. His lawyers have tied up that case with questions and motions and it has yet to proceed to an indictment. Olmert's office says that the privatization of Leumi, a state-run bank, was done according to law. As for the apartment scandal, Olmert's aides deny that any laws were broken.

Several legislators demanded that the Prime Minister be suspended, but political analysts in Jerusalem say that Olmert will survive in office, not because he is loved but because his rivals are in such disarray that none of them sees an advantage to contesting an election at this point should Olmert be forced from the government. [And while Olmert's approval rating hovers at a lowly 25%, that is an improvement due to the government's air strike last week on an alleged Syrian military installation.]

But the Prime Minister may face other slings. Justice Ministry sources told TIME that Attorney General Mazuz next month may launch at least one and possibly two more investigations against Olmert. If that happens, being the target of four police probes could prove too much, even for Olmert's prodigious chutzpah, forcing him to resign. He will be too busy fighting legal battles to provide the kind of steely-eyed helmsmanship that Israelis demand from a leader who must deal with the Palestinian conflict and regional enemies Syria and Hezballah.

In the meantime, Olmert's adversaries, Labor leader Ehud Barak and Benyamin Netanyahu of the conservative Likud party, are not prepared to topple him. Netanyahu is still consolidating his hold on Likud after recent party elections, while Barak is using his post as acting defense minister to convince Israelis that he is no longer the one-time peacemaker who, when he was Prime Minister from 1999 to 2001, was prepared to cut generous deals with Palestinian militants. The newly minted Barak is now wary of any negotiations with Palestinians and wants to impose harsher sanctions on the 1.5 million Palestinians who live under control of Hamas militants in Gaza. Both rivals are willing to wait until Olmert's troubles become so tangled that he falls without having to be pushed. With reporting by Aaron J. Klein/Jerusalem