Olmert Charges Grow More Likely

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Menahem Kahana / Pool / Reuters

Israel's Prime Minister Ehud Olmert during the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem Sept. 7

Israel top police officers on Sunday said there was evidence to indict Prime Minister Ehud Olmert for alleged fraud and bribery. The police decision caps months of political turmoil and drama that have marred Olmert's tenure as prime minister, stalling peace talks with the Palestinians and, more recently, the Syrians. The police will now pass on their recommendation to the country's attorney general who will decide whether to prosecute Israel's beleaguered and unpopular leader.

The police decision comes after an 18-month investigation into allegations that Olmert took envelopes stuffed with thousands of dollars in cash from a prominent Jewish-American businessman. Police say that the prime minister should also be indicted for double-billing his first-class trips abroad to various Jewish charitable institutions and then using the excess cash to pay for his family vacations.

It is expected that the attorney general will decide on the police recommendations within the next few weeks. In the past, Attorney General Menachem Mazuz has sometimes ignored the police's advice, but he is unlikely to do so in such a controversial case, in which the evidence of Olmert's alleged fraud and bribe-taking spooled out on nightly TV news like a tawdry soap opera.

Olmert earlier vowed to resign if he is indicted, and already his centrist Kadima party is preparing to replace him. A leadership battle is now underway within the party between Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz. Livni, who appears to have the edge, is campaigning on her clean record in contrast to Olmert's backroom politicking, while Mofaz, a former defense minister, is playing up his security credentials.

The prime minister's lawyers described the police decision as "meaningless." A statement by Olmert's attorneys said: "We will wait patiently for the decision of the attorney general. Unlike the police, he is aware of the heavy responsibility he holds."

If Olmert is indicted, Israel faces months of political turmoil ahead. His Kadima party will elect a new leader to replace Olmert during the party primaries, which start on Sept. 17. Olmert's successor would then try to form a new coalition government; if he or she fails, Israel will face early elections. According to polls, a fresh election could restore to power the rightwing Likud party, led by ex-Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu.

—With reporting by Aaron J. Klein/Tel Aviv