Israel's Party Marred By Olmert Probe

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Dan Balilty / AP

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert talks to members of the media during a news conference at his official residence in Jerusalem, late Thursday May 8, 2008.

He may be hosting his nation's 60th birthday party, but the smile on the face of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert as he greets VIP guests — including, later this week, President George W. Bush — appears wan and perfunctory. It's hard to be the life of the party when you're facing a criminal investigation.

The timing of the latest probe into Olmert's finances could not have been worse for the politically beleaguered prime minister. Just as celebratory fireworks cascaded over Jerusalem's ancient domes and spires, prosecutors were readying a case over allegations that he has, over the years, accepted hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash stuffed into envelopes from New York financier Morris Talansky. Olmert does not deny receiving the envelopes, but he insists they were campaign contributions that he never used personally. Talansky has denied that he tried to bribe Olmert.

As a result of the new probe, in a week when Olmert should have been regaling the press about Israel's myriad successes, he was instead parrying accusations that he had allegedly threatened Talansky to deter him from giving evidence to Israeli police. "Who am I, Tony Soprano?" Olmert remarked angrily.

That this sordid spectacle burst like an errant firework in front of his impressive array of guests will certainly have embarrassed the Israeli Prime Minister. A Monday poll showed that 59% of Israelis now believe that Olmert should resign.

Olmert's prospects were not helped by the fact that his longtime office manager, Shula Zakin, has been interrogated four times in the past two weeks by Israel's fraud squad, and that his personal attorney and the keeper of his secrets, Uri Messer, was spotted wandering despondently along the center divider of the main Tel Aviv-Jerusalem highway, according to Israeli media reports. (Messer claims he was simply lost.) Police investigators say that Messer, Zakin and businessman Talansky are all giving evidence in the criminal probe against Olmert. (Messer is being questioned for his role in managing Olmert's campaign finances.) What intrigues police, according to some Israeli press reports, is why Olmert was allegedly collecting campaign funds during years in which he was not actively running for any office. Before taking over as prime minister, Olmert had served as minister for industry, trade and labor, and as mayor of Jerusalem.

Still, long-time observers of Israeli politics won't write off Olmert. Four previous investigations into suspected bribery and influence peddling produced no charges, which could well be the outcome of the latest probe. Olmert has vowed that if he is indicted he will resign, which would trigger off a messy war of succession within his own centrist Kadima party — a scenario nobody wants. Should Olmert be ousted, Israel would face early elections, which polls currently show would be won by the conservative Likud party, led by ex-premier Benjamin Netanyahu, a staunch critic of Olmert's peace efforts.

Olmert has hired three top defense lawyers and is doing his best, during this week of independence celebrations, to put on a tight party smile for his all-star guests.

With reporting by Aaron J. Klein/Jerusalem